Courtesy Reuters

Plutonium, Proliferation and the Price of Reprocessing

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

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