Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act is Good Policy 30 Years On

It is impossible to entirely separate a civilian nuclear power program from a potential nuclear weapons program. President Bush knows this, which is why he is so concerned about Iran’s nuclear energy program. And this is why our country should not undercut nonproliferation goals by restarting a domestic reprocessing program, now called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). After putting the effort aside three decades ago, GNEP would reprocess plutonium from civilian nuclear power reactors. Reprocessing is dangerous — creating more fissile material that can be sabotaged or stolen by terrorists from storage or during transportation. But most importantly, a renewed U.S. reprocessing effort will set precisely the wrong example for the rest of the world.

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (H.R. 8638) by President Jimmy Carter. The NNPA outlines sound policy based on the inherent connection between peaceful nuclear energy technology and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, committing the U.S. to abandon practices that would increase stocks of dangerous plutonium.

Through the NNPA, the U.S. committed to using a “once-through” nuclear fuel cycle which cools and then stores spent uranium fuel rods intact with the plutonium and other nuclear wastes that are radioactive enough to make theft of the material almost impossible. Other fuel cycles chemically separate the plutonium from other fission byproducts, and in its pure form, this dangerous material is easily portable.

Plutonium was originally separated to build nuclear weapons. Less than 8 kilograms of plutonium is needed for a nuclear explosive powerful enough to destroy a city. With the risk of theft or sale of such material to terrorists, it is unthinkable that President Bush wants to restart the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and add to the global plutonium stockpile.

Plutonium is also used in a nuclear fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX. Once proposed to bring down the cost and waste of nuclear power by reusing parts of spent fuel, MOX has proven to be neither cost effective nor waste reducing. Discoveries of uranium deposits and the decreased construction of power plants have kept the price of uranium lower than expected. Reprocessing creates its own radioactive waste products in need of proper disposal and actually increases the amount of hazardous waste in the fuel cycle.

Plutonium separation is also unnecessary for existing nuclear weapon stockpiles. Plutonium “pits” in existing warheads are monitored for reliability through the Stockpile Stewardship program, and it is now thought that these will be reliable for at least 40 more years. In addition, the U.S. has 92 metric tons of plutonium ready to use in pits should they be needed (54 tons of which are designated as “excess military material”). New nuclear weapon designs do not have Congressional support and run counter to the nonproliferation goals the U.S. is trying to promote around the world.

Two recent mishaps in the handling of our own nuclear arsenal prove that no country is immune to the dangers of accident or oversight.

Reprocessing would undercut more than ten years of international effort to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament. It won’t bring down the cost of nuclear power because the process is more costly than the fresh-uranium alternative. Reprocessing does not reduce waste in the nuclear fuel cycle, but creates new radioactive byproducts that need careful and costly disposal.

The United States should not reverse 30 years of sound policy. We should not allow the Bush administration to double-talk our nation into GNEP – an expensive, hazardous, and dangerous enterprise that decreases our security. The United States should stand by its nonproliferation commitments and maintain the once-through nuclear fuel cycle.

3 thoughts on “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act is Good Policy 30 Years On

  1. I get a really bad feeling of spin from this article.. You are saying “It will increase costs, it will increase waste, fuel should be used once then ditched, not recycled. The US govt has gone insane, because there’s literally no reason to be doing this.”

    Clearly this isn’t the full story, and you’re giving us a biased view. I understood it as “fresh nuclear fuel is currently cheaper, but it won’t be for long, so we are investing in reprocessing plants”, which makes sense.
    I think energy security is currently a more pressing concern than “setting an example” by not pursuing this.

    It’s worth noting that Iran also signed the NPA, and it seems to simply be using the NPA civilian power as an excuse for when its secret program was found. It doesn’t seem to be helping where it’s needed most, so why is it worth so much trouble to set an example?

    Also isn’t this reprocessing deal now being done with some partnership with Russia? Isn’t this bringing together the two largest nuclear powers? It seems like a positive thing, unless I’m mixing up my news stories (I know there was some US-Russia nuclear cooperation pact which went through recently)

    Why doesn’t the FAS report the facts clearly without posting articles that are just opinion pieces? I didn’t subscribe for opinion.

  2. I would expect the reprocessing to be combined with breeder type of reactors to burn the plutonium. With the HVDC technology (especially new updated version by ABB) you could have few locations (well guarded) that have u238 (conventional fission), Pu239 (breeder) and negative neutron flux based reactors. That way you need to guard one spot and you are using the fuel a lot more efficiently (let’s remember that u235 is less than 1% of all the uranium in the world so it’s at least a factor of 100 in more available energy).

    Since it’s all in the same place security should be easier to maintain (even if it is extremely high at the site it self).

  3. In the first paragraph of your comment you have quoted me, but nowhere did I write that exact quote. This blog piece is in fact my view, based on my research, and this is my opinion piece – that is what this blog is about. Your comment in the second paragraph about fresh uranium fuel not being cheaper than plutonium-based reprocessing fuel soon is a commonly held view but there is much scientific evidence to the contrary. See for example a Harvard University report found at http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/2089/economics_of_reprocessing_vs_direct_disposal_of_spent_nuclear_fuel.html
    or look at Princeton University’s physicist Frank Von Hippel’s page at http://www.princeton.edu/~globsec/people/fvhippel.html
    or a report on the availability of uranium resources by the European Nuclear Society at http://www.euronuclear.org/info/encyclopedia/u/uranium-reserves.htm
    I’m not sure what you were referring to when you said “Iran also signed the NPA” – perhaps you meant the NPT, but this article is about a U.S. law, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, not the NPT.
    Lastly, the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia has not gone through yet and probably will not as a punishment of sorts for the Russia’s aggression in the war in Georgia. There is a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the subject Tuesday Sept. 9 here in Washington – it is open to the public if you want to attend.

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