Europe and the United States have parted company on the question of reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power reactors, particularly as it applies to the separation and export of plutonium. The decisions to proceed with the construction of new plants at Windscale in Britain and La Hague in France, designed in large part to provide this service for non-nuclear-weapon countries, run counter to the U.S. conviction that restricting separation and trade in plutonium is essential, at least until more effective controls can be devised.

History, unlike physics, does not allow for controlled experiments, so we may never know how things would have turned out had the British and French acceded to the American plea that a commitment to large-scale reprocessing be deferred. I do not propose here to rehash the arguments over whether these European decisions should have been taken. What I would like to do is to explore their implications for our common effort at control over the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There is no disagreement among the United States, Britain and France that reprocessing plants in non-nuclear-weapon states should be discouraged. The British Foreign Secretary, Dr. David Owen, told Parliament during the Windscale debate that Britain had "never made such a sale, nor do we intend to do so." The recently reported mutual reexamination of a transaction involving the sale of reprocessing facilities by France to Pakistan is welcome news. There is disagreement among us, however, over whether provision of plutonium services for export helps the effort to contain proliferation.

The situation is not without its ironies: much of the spent fuel the United States hopes will not be reprocessed prematurely is in fact under its putative control. It is derived primarily from fuel supplied under agreements that require American approval for its reprocessing and for the subsequent return of plutonium to its owners. The granting of such approvals is subject to strict criteria under the U.S. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. The law treats the European member countries of EURATOM as a single entity, and provides certain exemptions where U.S.-supplied fuel moves inside that community. Reprocessing carried out for non-EURATOM countries, however, is subject to an American veto.

During the period following the announcements by Presidents Ford and Carter, in October 1976 and April 1977 respectively, of new U.S. policy on plutonium separation - and in some cases after the passage of the new U.S. nonproliferation law early in 1978 - the Europeans entered into a number of export reprocessing contracts. The United States, as part of its effort to persuade others to join in a deferral of reprocessing, had invited broad international participation in a two-year study of technical alternatives to plutonium. In addition to this effort to take some of the sting out of the tough new U.S. policies, the major industrial countries - the U.K., France, West Germany and Japan - were assured that ongoing nuclear commercial activities were not expected to be "turned off" during this period. Unfortunately, the European reprocessors, determined to proceed with their new plants, either failed to perceive the implication of American decisions for their own export plans, or concluded they did not present serious obstacles.

The result was to put the United States in a box: strict consistency with its stated policy against premature reprocessing meant withholding assent to the transfer of spent fuel (arising from U.S.-supplied fuel and reactors) to the European plants, thereby pulling the rug from under close allies and friends. But total acquiescence in the fulfillment of the contracts implied acceptance of defeat in the effort to control reprocessing and the widespread use of plutonium before adequate protection is in place. In the circumstances, a middle course was chosen: permission to transfer spent fuel to the European plants will be granted in certain cases, but strict conditions will be imposed on the eventual return of plutonium to its owners. The implementation of U.S. nonproliferation policy thus becomes an extremely delicate balancing act. How many exceptions will need to be made? And how strict will be the conditions on plutonium return? The most interesting question in nuclear energy policy today is how the United States will thread its way through this minefield.

II

In addition to the critical issues of policy and national relationships involved, it is clear that heavy financial investments ride on the outcome. Over the next decade Windscale is scheduled to receive about 2,000 metric tonnes of spent fuel from Japan; a like amount is expected to come in from Europe. La Hague is reported to have contracts with Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland and Austria to process about 6,000 tonnes of spent fuel. In security terms, this adds up to the separation of perhaps 50 tonnes of plutonium, or - to use an admittedly crude measure - enough for about 10,000 nuclear weapons. In commercial terms, when transport charges are included, the European contracts are said to represent almost three billion dollars in business.

The political might of these investments is bound to influence the issue of control. For, despite international safeguards, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and various international cooperative arrangements, the history of the past 25 years suggests that in reality commercial considerations have tended to dominate, complicate and undermine security concerns.

"The problem with disinterring a little history," Tawney once observed, "is that one runs the risk of appearing to sermonize." Nevertheless, we are bound to acknowledge that U.S. policies were largely responsible for the very situation over which we are now wringing our hands and importuning our fellow nuclear suppliers.

The idea of nuclear power for the generation of electricity had its genesis in prewar France and came to Britain early in World War II by way of two refugee French scientists. When the exigencies of the war moved the nuclear weapons project to North America, the power reactor idea and its commercial possibilities went with it. But at the end of the war, when the British moved to take up the options on technical cooperation provided in wartime agreements with the United States, they ran head on into the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which effectively sealed off any outward flow of information. There was understandable bitterness in the United Kingdom, which saw this as an attempt to interfere with Britain's atomic energy development. The French, deprived of credit for their wartime contribution, were even more incensed.

Commercial rivalry still haunts us today and complicates efforts to solve the problem of international security posed by the utilization of nuclear energy. It has been there from the beginning and it is not going to go away. What we need to do is to set limits on it.

The first best effort at international controls, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report in 1946, took into account the fact that no control scheme which precluded national commercial development of peaceful uses was likely to succeed. At the same time, it insisted on the need to reserve the dangerous aspects of nuclear energy to international ownership and control. Dangerous activities were defined as those for which an effective inspection system - one which provided sufficient warning time of diversion to frustrate illicit weapons manufacture - was not possible under any circumstances. "Separation plants which make the material for bombs" were placed on the dangerous list.

It was some years after the failure of the international control proposal based on that Report before the United States moved into high gear commercially with the Atoms for Peace program, announced by President Eisenhower in 1953. While there was an element of altruism in that program, it was by no means unadulterated. In 1955, for example, a special committee of scientists and industrialists appointed by the Congress reported that U.S. assistance in the European development of nuclear energy would not only pay long-term dividends in future U.S. programs, but would also open a potential multibillion-dollar market.

For more than 20 years, the United States pursued that market on the theory that the combination of bilateral and international inspections would provide adequate protection against diversion to military purposes. In assessing the dangers associated with possible misuse of nuclear materials, we were influenced by the mistaken assumption that nuclear weapons development would always require long and costly programs and that even separated plutonium could not easily or rapidly be turned into military explosives. That notion has now been pretty much put to rest, but we are still living with the decisions and institutions that were based on it.

In that more innocent time we pushed the idea of the plutonium-fueled breeder reactor enthusiastically, treated the future utilization of plutonium as inevitable, and regarded reprocessing as a legitimate and necessary commercial activity to be undertaken as the need arose. Unfortunately, the possibility that safeguards that worked for low-enriched nuclear fuel would not also work for plutonium, when that far-off day came, was not considered. The slow realization that international inspection of plutonium stockpiles could not provide sufficient protection turned U.S. policy around.

It was an important break with this history when President Ford, on October 28, 1976, announced that "avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests" and that reprocessing should be deferred until "there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation."

Two elements contributed to this decision and to the subsequent development and extension of U.S. nonproliferation policy under President Carter. The primary consideration was that no way is now known to protect nationally held plutonium stocks (or stocks of highly enriched uranium for that matter) should their owners suddenly decide to abrogate agreements and appropriate explosive material for weapons. The second was that since reprocessing and recycling of plutonium in the present generation of light water power reactors is a dubious proposition economically, the early introduction of plutonium into international trade is as unnecessary as it is dangerous.

Both Presidents Ford and Carter believed that a resolution of the security problem had to precede, not follow, any move to large-scale reprocessing, a notion our allies and trading partners have resisted. It is hardly surprising that the sharp policy shift on plutonium caused widespread irritation, alarm and even the cynical suggestion that the Americans were less interested in proliferation than in perpetuating a commercial advantage.

There were other reasons why American efforts to defer reprocessing met with so little success. The United States has so far failed to establish the credibility of the once-through fuel cycle as the most sensible technological approach: the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), which the United States believes should confirm the wisdom of reliance on the present generation of power reactors and their fuels into the next century, will not be completed for another year. Our earlier uranium enrichment contract policies, especially the sudden drastic curbs of 1974, left a residual uncertainty about the reliability of U.S. fuel supplies. We failed to provide adequate assistance, either in terms of technology or an offer of services, for the handling of spent fuel to relieve political pressure stemming from waste disposal problems. We misjudged the depth of the commitment to reprocessing in the nuclear bureaucracies of the big industrial nations; that commitment was very far gone by the time we moved to intercept it. And last but by no means least, the idea of plutonium as the ultimate fuel was so entrenched that it drained conviction from the effort to delay its utilization.

III

I leave it to historians to decide whether, in these circumstances, the British and French commitment to the new plants at Windscale and La Hague was inevitable. What is significant and interesting for our purposes is that both Britain and France have emphasized the security advantages of their reprocessing plans, and have agreed that this is an essential criterion for evaluating the soundness of these plans. The British view, as it emerged in recent public discussion, is that pressures arising from worldwide accumulation of spent fuel, if not relieved by reprocessing, will inevitably drive non-nuclear-weapon states to develop indigenous reprocessing facilities, which everyone agrees pose serious dangers of proliferation. The best way to discourage this development, it was argued, is to confine reprocessing services to the states which already have the bomb. As David Owen put it: "I am second to none in wishing to try to restrict reprocessing, where it is possible, to those who are nuclear weapon states."

The difficulty with this approach turns on the conditions to be attached to the return of plutonium to its owners. The commercial and political pressures which led to reprocessing in the first place and which have made it so difficult for the United States to exercise its rights of control as the world's major supplier of enriched fuels will likely come into play again, forcing return whether or not adequate international protection has been developed. This pressure would become acute should the 40-odd nations participating in INFCE arrive at a "consensus" that return is somehow technically safe and manageable through some international arrangement.

Indeed, if plutonium is held in international storage but remains under national ownership, pressures for return may be even more difficult to resist. It is unlikely that controls devised by any group of countries in the plutonium trade will have any more bite than the present system of international safeguards. In either event the problems of setting criteria for return are the same, whether they are confronted on the national or international level.

The idea of international solutions has always been evoked by the hard questions. Where can plutonium be stored safely until needed? What rules are to govern the return of plutonium to its owners? Where will radioactive wastes be stored? Who will lay down the rules for transportation safety and enforce them? But whenever the subject comes up I cannot escape the impression that what is envisioned is not international management, but only international caretaking. Are the reprocessors really willing to submit themselves to a strict, comprehensive international regime of plutonium controls, with all that implies for the conduct of a competitive commerce?

Yet can they commit themselves to anything less? The international community has a right to know what rules are going to govern this commerce. Country X has a right to know whether and in which circumstances and in what form its neighbor, Country Y, is getting potential nuclear-explosive materials. How long will standards hold if the reprocessors themselves pick and choose among the non-nuclear-weapon countries, many of which would be likely to claim the right to unconditional reprocessing services (or even conceivably the right to purchase plutonium from other owners) as a quid pro quo, perhaps, for foregoing indigenous reprocessing?

In opting to carry out this service, Europe is taking on this as well as other headaches. It has been proposed that plutonium will be ladled out carefully as necessary. But this implies fuel dependence, and if plutonium displaces uranium as the primary fuel for power reactors, the logic of the long-sought goal plutonium is supposed to fulfill in the minds of many nations - fuel "independence" - will not permit fuel dependence simply to shift from the United States to Europe. It will lead instead to indigenous reprocessing.

But this is crystal-gazing. There are more immediate questions. We are faced right now with a security problem to which everyone agrees a ten-year time frame - the construction lead time for the new reprocessing plants - is affixed. We have in place certain instrumentalities for control which took at least 25 years to build up: a frail system of international safeguards in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nonproliferation Treaty pledges to refrain from nuclear weapons manufacture, not yet universal, and the rough ground rules agreed to among the nuclear suppliers at London over the past three years. For reasons I have tried to explain, none of these alone or in combination is likely to provide any more adequate insurance against widespread access to plutonium ten years hence than they do now.

This is why the controls over U.S.-supplied fuel provided in the new law are so important in American eyes. Non-EURATOM countries must not only obtain permission to transfer U.S.-supplied spent fuel to the reprocessors, but must secure an additional approval for the return to them of plutonium from the new plants at Windscale and La Hague. The latter transfer is governed by the strict standard adopted by Congress in the 1978 Act; it requires that "foremost consideration" be given to whether or not the transfer will take place "under conditions that will ensure timely warning to the United States of any diversion well in advance of the time" diverted material could be transformed into weapons. This standard will be extremely difficult to meet. It is thus risky to infer that any U.S. approval for transfer of spent fuel to the reprocessor will also bring the plutonium home to the customer free and clear. In September 1978, the United States informed the countries concerned that it intended to retain a veto over transfer of plutonium. Yet there are indications that the reprocessors think the technicians engaged in the INFCE evaluation may bail them out of this problem and thereby "vindicate" plutonium.

The conditions under which return will be allowed of course involve the controls adopted by the reprocessors as well as U.S. criteria. So far, however, the reprocessors themselves have not made explicit their thinking about how rules for returning plutonium might be designed.

IV

The 1978 parliamentary and public debate over whether to proceed with reprocessing for export at Windscale revealed clearly that the British government is concerned about exporting bomb-ready materials. Much was made of the fact that plutonium will be returned to its owners only under international safeguards, which are admittedly not "perfect" but said to be improving all the time.

There is a certain amount of bravado in the perennial talk about "strengthening" international safeguards to protect plutonium; recent IAEA studies indicate we cannot even be sanguine about how they are working in the far less vexing task of safeguarding reactors. Confidence in safeguards over plutonium stocks would not appear to square with the British, French and American determination to discourage indigenous reprocessing. If protection against removal of plutonium from an indigenous stockpile can't be provided, it is difficult to see how providing the plutonium from a plant abroad will help matters.

There is an implied recognition of this in the attention being given in the United Kingdom to various possibilities for doing something to the plutonium before it is returned to its owners. Dr. Owen has pledged the material will be returned "only in a form that will reduce the risks" of proliferation. In his Report on the official British Windscale Inquiry, the Hon. Mr. Justice Parker took refuge in time: ". . . this matter can be alleviated to some extent by technical fixes," he wrote. "It will not in any event happen for ten years . . . ."

I must presume to disagree with the eminent judge. If suppliers and customers are unable to forge a consensus on some coherent overall plan for control sooner than that, the plutonium emerging from the new plants ten years hence may get away from us all.

Of course technical fixes play a role. There is no question that we should pursue every conceivable scheme for making the fuel cycle more resistant to misuse; one of the objectives of the international effort now underway in INFCE is to rethink the technical options. But leaning on technical fixes which are illusory or impractical can sidetrack and even undermine the development of sound institutional approaches to controls.

One such technical fix, the so-called CIVEX process, has received a fair amount of international attention in recent months; it involves a return of plutonium to the customer in the form of fabricated fuel retaining radioactive products, to make chemical extraction of bomb material more difficult. The argument for this scheme is that spent fuel storage pools around the world constitute "plutonium mines." As such they are alleged to be a greater proliferation risk than plutonium separated in a nuclear weapon state and stored in central repositories until withdrawn on demand.

Unfortunately, there is no conceivable way this scheme can be implemented within the ten-year period Mr. Justice Parker has allowed us; it was in fact conceived for the future breeder reactor fuel cycle, not expected for decades. Moreover, the isotopes that the CIVEX process permits to remain in the fabricated fuel stay radioactive enough to provide protection for a few years at most - measured from the time they emerge from the reactor in the original spent fuel. Since a longer period than this would almost certainly be consumed in the delays inherent in reprocessing in this century (given existing backlogs), the CIVEX process cannot contribute to the solution of the problems we must worry about now.

Technical fixes involving the use of irradiated fuels (and several which have been suggested do) present special problems. It will be difficult to persuade the nuclear industry to use such fuels, with their inevitable increase in occupational and public health exposures. In addition, the idea that the reprocessors will fabricate fuel for all their customers flies in the face of commercial reality. The owners of the material are not likely to accept the dictates of the reprocessor as to the form in which plutonium is to be returned to them, particularly when it is hazardous.

It is unfortunate that CIVEX was not at first generally understood to be unsuitable for application to the stocks of spent fuel from the present generation of power reactors. The abortive flurry within the nuclear industry over this process underlines the importance of attacking the problem of plutonium return now, and not ten years from now. What is to be done if no workable technical fix can be found, or if one is found but is unacceptable to the customer? The reprocessing country may find itself giving plutonium back pure, or dumping it on an international agency, if one exists, or being stuck with a lot of plutonium. It may also get stuck with the associated waste products. That brings me to my next point.

V

A recurrent rationale runs through the record of the Windscale Inquiry: that whether or not plutonium is to be used as fuel, reprocessing is an essential first step in waste disposal, and therefore the sooner we get on with it the better. It is interesting that the President's Interagency Review Group on Waste Management has since found that reprocessing is not required to assure disposal of commercial spent fuel. The rush to reprocessing shows a curious disregard for the price of money, which surely bears on the economics of future investment. On this point, one of the reprocessors has acknowledged that reprocessing probably does not make much economic sense so far as overall use of resources is concerned - but that the contract terms add up to "very good business."

There are, however, complications in undertaking disposal of reprocessing waste on a large commercial scale. We are confronted with an immediate question: Where is it all going to go? What if (as one of the contractors has actually told me) the whole of the waste from reprocessing will be returned to the customer - not only vitrified high-level waste, but solidified medium-level plant effluents, the remains of fuel rods, all of it?

If a country's motive for reprocessing spent fuel now derives from the pressure for storage, and if it is obliged to take back all the waste products, the likely increase in volume returned will not simplify the storage problem in the long term. If the motive lies in public pressures to get rid of accumulating spent fuel for environmental or public health reasons, subsequent return of the wastes will only aggravate the political problem. If the motive is to extract the plutonium and bank it for future use as fuel, where is the customer going to bank the wastes? Is it implicit in the current arrangements that each country buying reprocessing services is to have its own permanent waste site? The reprocessors cannot regard this as entirely the customers' problem.

I will resist contrasting the disposal of radioactive wastes after reprocessing with the relatively simple and proven procedures now in use for holding spent fuel safely for long periods of time. But I might observe that since the projected reprocessing capacity probably cannot sop up the spent fuel expected to be generated yearly by the end of the next decade, it would be prudent to pursue the idea of regional spent fuel storage a little more vigorously.

These practical technical problems are bearing down on us very fast, and threaten to outstrip the search for ways to cope with a nuclear explosive in commercial use.

The Nonproliferation Treaty ruled out the acquisition of nuclear explosive devices, however labeled, by non-nuclear-weapon states because explosives for ostensibly "peaceful" purposes cannot be distinguished from explosives for more ominous uses, and the Treaty provides for explosives services only under strict international physical control. While it does not define a nuclear explosive device, it would be impossible to sustain the argument that the same rules do not apply to something very close to a ready explosive device - say, a disassembled bomb. That being so, what about the nuclear explosive itself? Is it to be covered by the rules for explosives, or is its use to be unconstrained so long as it is labeled "peaceful"? The only answer consistent with the Treaty's prohibition on nuclear explosive devices is that nuclear explosive material is not eligible for the "peaceful" label until it can be proved capable of being safeguarded against national appropriation of plutonium stocks.

We have to accept the fact that we cannot put the plutonium we plan to separate into the stream of commerce until a fail-safe mechanism can be devised. The rules have to be strict, uniform and universal. There cannot be one set of rules for those inside the club and another for those outside. For one thing there are too many clubs: the nuclear weapons states; the nuclear supplier states; the potential supplier states; and the states newly arrived at political power, and riches.

VI

In presenting the Windscale question to the House of Commons, the British Foreign Secretary suggested the basic dilemma to be that of reconciling the need to utilize the energy in plutonium with the danger of proliferation. If plutonium is equated with the survival of nuclear power, then the dilemma has been correctly stated. But the idea that without plutonium nuclear energy is at a dead end ought to be greeted with increasing skepticism in the face of the abandonment as uneconomic of plutonium recycled as fuel in current reactors, more optimistic assessments of uranium supply, and greater efficiency in the preparation and use of enriched fuels. We don't have to choose now between plutonium and nuclear energy.

If there is a dilemma, it arises out of the choice between plutonium and proliferation. Whether we will have to make that choice in the future depends on how much commercial freedom we are willing to trade for international security. What I have tried to point out here is that nuclear explosive materials cannot be handled within the normal rules of commerce - their control is beyond the present capacities of our international institutions - and that time is running out.

Time is running out in INFCE as well; unless its deadline is extended, final report drafting will begin within the next six months. An emerging political "consensus," based on expected technical results, is already being talked about. It encompasses an acceptance of commercial reprocessing, at least in a select group of countries, and international involvement in plutonium storage and possibly the development of ground rules for its utilization.

The imminent INFCE conclusions may thus present the United States with difficult choices between compromise of its nonproliferation goals and severe political discomfort. During the "period of INFCE," for example, U.S. permissions for reprocessing at Windscale and La Hague are being granted only on a case-by-case basis and held as closely as possible to the applicant's "need" and "strong political commitment" to common nonproliferation objectives. Were INFCE to find for large-scale reprocessing, however, massive U.S. approvals to feed the European reprocessing plants would obviously be expected. Such approvals will in turn trigger pressures to ease restrictions on return of the plutonium to its owners. But here the U.S. Non-Proliferation Act has very little give: it requires that, in considering permission for return, "foremost consideration" be given to whether the "timely warning" safeguards standard is met.

The pressure is building toward some degree of U.S. acceptance of an INFCE "consensus" which will end the current uncertainty over the future of reprocessing. Here it needs to be kept in mind that while INFCE is a useful technical exercise, it is unequipped to deal with the political-military questions integral to the problem of nuclear proliferation and international security. In the end, it is important to remember that any consensus that obliterates or even blurs the distinction between safe and dangerous commercial nuclear activities will cripple U.S. nonproliferation efforts. That distinction is absolutely central to U.S. nuclear energy policy and the new law.

In a press conference following the announcement of his nuclear energy policy on April 7, 1977, President Carter expressed his desire to develop a relationship with other countries "to remove the competitive aspect of reprocessing itself. There is obviously going to be continued competition," he said, "in the selling of atomic power plants themselves." Nevertheless, the President felt there had to be a "clearly drawn distinction" between what he called "the legitimate and necessary use of uranium and other enriched fuels to produce electricity" and the use of fuels that are also nuclear explosives. He is right.

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  • Victor Gilinsky has been a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission since its creation in 1975, having worked previously on international nuclear matters at the Atomic Energy Commission and the Rand Corporation. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Nuclear Policies: Fuel Without the Bomb. This article is adapted from remarks presented at the Atomic Industrial Forum/British Nuclear Forum International Conference on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, held in London in September 1978.
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