A Market-Sharing Approach to the Nuclear Sales Problem

Paul L. Leventhal, Counsel to the Government Operations Committee, provided research and assistance in the preparation of the article.

An unanticipated development in the world nuclear marketplace has suddenly transformed the problem of nuclear proliferation from a potential to an immediate danger. The recent decisions by West Germany and France to sell nuclear fuel facilities to Brazil and Pakistan, respectively, mark the first sharp divergence by major industrial nations from long-established U.S. nonproliferation policy. The cornerstone of this policy has been the general practice of exporting power reactors and low-enriched uranium fuel, neither of which can be applied directly to weapons-making, and of not exporting nuclear fuel plants capable of enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium in a form suitable for direct use in atomic bombs.

The United States failed to anticipate these sales and has been ineffective in seeking to persuade Germany and France not to proceed with them. This indicates a serious weakness in the execution of American nonproliferation policy, which if left uncorrected, could result in the rapid spread of nuclear weapons material and capability around the world.

II

U.S. exports of nuclear technology, equipment and material currently dominate 70 percent of the world market. We require the customer nations to pledge that our nuclear assistance will be used for peaceful purposes, the most important of which is generating electricity. The turbines of the average nuclear power plant sold today generate one billion watts of electricity, enough to serve a city of one million people. The nuclear core of the power plant generates 500 pounds of plutonium a year, which if separated from spent fuel, is enough bomb material to devastate several cities of that size.

As the principal developer and promoter of nuclear power plants, the United States has sought to keep the plutonium generated by these plants out of the hands of our customers by refusing to sell them reprocessing plants or technology. Such plants are used to chemically separate plutonium-readily usable in a weapons development program-from the "ashes" of the reactor fuel. The policy has also reflected the fact that there has been no commercial justification for such plants because there is no present need to recycle plutonium as reactor fuel.

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