Login/Logout

*
*  

"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Fissile Material

Bush Calls for More GNEP, MOX Facility Funds

Miles A. Pomper

President George W. Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request, unveiled Feb. 4, calls for a significant increase in funding for two controversial administration nuclear efforts: the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and a new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. The administration made the request despite the fact that Congress significantly cut funds for both programs last year and key lawmakers continue to express skepticism about the initiatives.

Administration officials have claimed that GNEP, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear weapons proliferation. Critics assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed. Many of these concerns have been echoed by U.S. lawmakers, but the administration has continued to sign up international partners: Senegal joined Feb. 1 and the United Kingdom joined Feb. 26, becoming the 20th and 21st members.

GNEP calls for research on new reprocessing technologies that administration officials say will not yield pure separated plutonium but rather a mixture that includes plutonium and is less applicable to making bombs. GNEP further calls for construction of new advanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel. These “fast reactors” would burn plutonium as well as other elements in the spent fuel, rather than the uranium used to fuel today’s power reactors. The administration also claims that using such facilities will reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at nuclear reactors so that the United States will not have to build another permanent repository.

The proposal has drawn criticism in part because facilities that reprocess spent fuel for plutonium-based fuels might also be used to harvest plutonium for nuclear bombs. By establishing such facilities, critics say, the United States might be encouraging other countries to do so as well, perhaps leading to nuclear weapons proliferation. Because of such concerns, the United States had shied away from spent fuel reprocessing for nearly three decades until GNEP was launched in 2006. He also requested $20 million for the development of smaller-scale reactors aimed at developing countries with “smaller and less developed power grids.”

Bush requested $302 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), the technology arm of GNEP, for fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1.

In response, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, called GNEP “ill-conceived” and said the proposed budget “raises serious concerns.”

Last year, Bush had requested $395 million for AFCI. But lawmakers cut that request by more than half, allocating only $179 million for the current fiscal year. Congress also chose to limit the program to research, blocking any expenditures for constructing commercial facilities or technology demonstration projects. Congress reached that decision after a National Research Council report concluded that the Department of Energy should return to a “less aggressive research program.” (See ACT, January/February 2008 and December 2007. )

Nonetheless, in Feb. 5 remarks at a nuclear energy industry forum, Assistant Secretary of Energy Dennis Spurgeon gave little indication that the administration had abandoned its plans to move forward quickly with demonstration projects or commercial facilities.

Citing four industry studies commissioned by the Energy Department in September 2007, Spurgeon said that “there are sound economic cases for deployment of near-term recycling [reprocessing] technology, but changes in current waste strategies are needed.”

Spurgeon also suggested that the studies backed a proposal he mooted before Congress in November 2007. That proposal would sidestep annual budget battles with Congress by allowing GNEP to dip into a pool of money that has accumulated from a fee Congress has imposed on nuclear power plant operators to pay for disposing of spent fuel. Last year, Spurgeon said that the U.S. government had accumulated close to $20 billion from this fee, which has yet to be spent because of continued political wrangling over a planned permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Waste is currently piling up at nuclear power plants.

In a briefing to Congress explaining the Energy Department’s nuclear energy budget request, Spurgeon suggested the operation of a “new government entity,” a nonprofit corporation that would be responsible for selling recycled fuels and uranium to utilities as well as collecting waste fees. He also indicated that the current $1 per megawatt-hour waste fee on nuclear power might be increased to sustain this new entity.

Spurgeon told the nuclear industry forum that “[a]lthough these actions require significant changes to legislation and regulations, addressing the waste issue is paramount to a successful nuclear renaissance.”

Spurgeon said that Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman planned to move ahead later this year with a decision on a “technology path forward” for GNEP. He said the industry studies propose different technological approaches to reprocessing. Some favor COEX, a process that extracts and precipitates uranium and plutonium (and possibly neptunium) together so that plutonium is never separated on its own. Other industry studies favor a pyroprocessing technology similar to that being studied by South Korea. Critics have said that neither technology would provide sufficient protection against conversion into nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

The scale and expense of the proposed reprocessing facilities and fast reactors vary substantially, Spurgeon said. He added that the studies proposed initial operation of the reprocessing facilities to begin between 2018 and 2028 and that prototype fast reactors would be deployed between 2018 and 2025.

Bush also called for spending $487 million for the new Savannah River facility and related efforts. The new facility will mix weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium to make new MOX fuel for nuclear reactors. Last year, the administration requested nearly $432 million for the facility and related costs, but lawmakers only appropriated a total of $279 million.

The administration’s budget request also includes $119 million toward efforts to disassemble plutonium pits from weapons so the material can be mixed into MOX fuel. This total includes spending $27 million toward final design efforts for a pit conversion and disassembly facility at Savannah River, $40 million to start construction of a related facility to solidify liquid wastes from that effort, and $52 million (up from $13 million in current spending) to operate a demonstration pit conversion and disassembly facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Under a 2000 agreement, the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of such plutonium but have not yet disposed of any. The Bush administration had pushed construction of the Savannah River facility as its means of meeting that goal, but ground was broken there only a few months ago. Funding for the project has trickled out for years as some lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, have said other strategies should be employed because of the project’s costs, safety concerns, potential proliferation risks, and the failure of Russia to move forward on its end of the deal. (See ACT, April 2007 .)

Lawmakers last year also made clear that a recent administration effort to restructure the 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement in a fashion more to Russia’s liking had done little to ease their belief that Russia was not upholding its end of the bargain. (See ACT, January/February 2008 and December 2007 .) They redirected all of the $208 million in funds that Congress had previously set aside to meet a $400 million U.S. pledge to help Russia meet its commitment under the deal. The administration only asked for $1 million for the Russian effort in its recent budget request.

Conference Addresses Illicit Nuclear Trafficking

Zachary Hosford

In late November, delegates from around the world convened in Edinburgh, Scotland, to address the dangers posed by the trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials.

Organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hosted by the United Kingdom, the conference entitled “Illicit Nuclear Trafficking: Collective Experience and the Way Forward” aimed to “take stock of global efforts” to impede black market trade as well as to consider measures that might thwart future smuggling attempts.

Included on the agenda was a discussion of the importance and continued development of the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB), a collection of recorded incidents of illegal trafficking. The objective of the database is to “facilitate exchange of authoritative information” on events involving nuclear and other radioactive materials and to analyze that information in order to identify any potential patterns.

As of Dec. 7, the ITDB had logged 1,266 incidents, including the Nov. 28 arrest of three men at a border crossing between Hungary and Slovakia who were attempting to sell more than 400 grams of powdered uranium.

In addition to agreeing on a continued focus on information tracking and sharing, the conference participants made several recommendations. First, they pledged to proceed with the development of new technologies for “hard-to-detect fissile materials,” which they agreed to share with states that currently lack more modern technological capabilities. Furthermore, the representatives concurred that they must “increase the sophistication of detection capabilities,” especially to address the long stretches of unguarded borders around the globe. Finally, the delegates agreed to improve intergovernmental communication and inform the general public more effectively on issues related to trafficking.

In all, about 300 delegates from more than 60 countries and 11 international organizations attended the four-day conference, which began Nov. 19. The group plans to convene another meeting in 2010 to assess progress in impeding illicit trafficking.


Click here to comment on this article.

In late November, delegates from around the world convened in Edinburgh, Scotland, to address the dangers posed by the trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials. (Continue)

Concerns Raised as South Korea Joins GNEP

Miles A. Pomper

South Korea Dec. 11 joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a step that could bring fresh controversy to the contested Bush administration program. South Korea’s participation comes as it plans to move forward with a technology that some say could help it develop nuclear weapons or violate a 1992 denuclearization agreement between it and North Korea. It also takes place as Washington presses Pyongyang to follow through on a 2007 commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Initiated by President George W. Bush in 2006, GNEP seeks to develop new nuclear technologies, particularly for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and new international nuclear fuel arrangements. Administration officials claim that these efforts will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear proliferation. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of spent fuel reprocessing technologies, be prohibitively expensive, fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly, and lack any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed. Congress recently slashed funds for the program.

Nonetheless, GNEP continues winning international adherents. South Korea, the world’s sixth-largest nuclear energy producer, is the group’s 19th member. These members have taken steps to craft a common agenda, holding their first steering committee meeting Dec. 19 to lay out the group’s course for 2008.

South Korea’s membership in GNEP has raised eyebrows because of South Korea’s decade-old research and development of a form of spent fuel reprocessing called pyroprocessing. South Korea claims it is interested in the technology to help cope with growing piles of spent fuel. In a December 2007 atomic energy road map paper, Seoul said that it aims to have a pilot pyroprocessing facility completed by 2012 and a semi-commercial facility in place by 2025.

The South Korean approach, called the Advanced Spent Fuel Conditioning Process (ACP), involves taking spent fuel from nuclear reactors, turning it into a metal, and dissolving it into molten salt. Using electrolysis, part of this material is then separated from some of the longest-lived fission products and reformed into a new fuel. The resultant product contains not only plutonium but also uranium and other materials, including some with significant radioactivity. In this way, the process differs from current reprocessing techniques, such as the PUREX process used in France, that use acid and organic solvents to separate relatively pure plutonium from other elements in the spent fuel.

According to some Bush administration officials, the differences mean that pyroprocessing is not as prone to diversion to a nuclear weapons program as conventional spent fuel reprocessing. Those conventional methods have provided the plutonium that has been used in many of the world’s nuclear explosives, including that of North Korea. In particular, the fact that pyroprocessing produces a fuel containing considerably radioactive fission products is seen to make it less valuable for weapons and a deterrent to seizure by terrorists. By comparison, plutonium alone lacks sufficient radioactivity to be considered as “self-protecting” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Pyropocessing is not reprocessing because it does not produce pure plutonium,” one U.S. official told Arms Control Today Jan. 3. Another official said Jan. 4 that the Departments of Energy and State had formally agreed in 2002 and in 2007 that pyroprocessing should not be considered as reprocessing under U.S. regulations, statutes, and agreements, which ban U.S. assistance to foreign reprocessing efforts.

Some independent studies, however, have said that the product of pyroprocessing would fall short of the IAEA self-protection standard. Moreover, outside analysts and previous U.S. government reports have said that although the technology itself may mark an improvement over current reprocessing methods, such a system would have other problems that could lead to weapons proliferation.

For example, they have said a program would train experts in plutonium chemistry and metallurgy and the use of hot cells and other appropriate facilities that could be used to recover plutonium for weapons. The system could also be reconfigured for more standard reprocessing.

A 1992 study for the Energy and State Departments said that appropriate safeguards had yet to be designed for such facilities and that it would be even more difficult to account for nuclear materials in them than in current reprocessing facilities. But an Energy Department official demurred from that judgment, telling Arms Control Today Jan. 4 that “we don’t agree that you can’t safeguard that technology.” The official said that “we are not in a position to dictate what they [South Korean officials] do” but that “we are not aiding and abetting” any problems.

South Korea has been negotiating with the United States and the IAEA over a safeguards agreement for a partially constructed, pilot pyroprocessing facility but has yet to conclude a pact. Despite regular pleas from South Korean officials at semi-annual meetings, U.S. officials have maintained significant restrictions on Seoul’s ability to test the ACP fully. They have only allowed South Korean scientists to participate on a case-by-case basis in joint pyroprocessing experiments at U.S. laboratories. In South Korea, scientists have been restricted to using fresh fuel, which does not contain plutonium, or to the step of the process that turns spent fuel into metal, so as not to gain access to means of separating plutonium. Under a nuclear cooperation agreement between Seoul and Washington, the United States must approve any use of the low-enriched uranium it supplies as fuel to South Korean nuclear reactors.

Moreover, another Energy Department official said that a significant guarantee that South Korea would not separate pure plutonium was its signing of the GNEP statement of principles. Under these, participants agree to refrain from separating pure plutonium.

“This is a further reaffirmation by South Korea that they will be in strict compliance with their international obligations,” the official told Arms Control Today Jan. 4. “It’s the power of voluntary affirmation.”

Still, the issue of whether pyroprocessing should be treated as akin to traditional reprocessing is far from settled in the U.S. government. One U.S. official acknowledged that some colleagues are “wringing their hands over whether or not this constitutes reprocessing” and said the issue is unlikely to be tackled head-on until Washington and Seoul begin negotiating a new nuclear cooperation agreement, likely later this year. The current agreement is set to expire in 2014.

Some U.S. officials fear that the pyroprocessing program could make it easier for Seoul to develop nuclear weapons. South Korea had a nuclear weapons program during the 1970s but discontinued it later that decade under U.S. pressure. (See ACT, October 2004. ) In 2004, Seoul also admitted that two decades earlier it had conducted experiments in separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. (See ACT, December 2004. )

Some officials also worry that the program could represent a setback to the 1992 North-South denuclearization agreement at a sensitive time in the effort to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The 1992 pact says that the two Koreas “shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” Although North Korea has violated the agreement, Seoul has claimed to continue to adhere to it in hopes that Pyongyang will later abide by its strictures.

More broadly, South Korea’s admission to GNEP has raised further questions about whether the program is adhering to its initial goals. The Bush administration launched GNEP in February 2006, portraying it in part as a practical means of reinforcing the president’s call two years earlier to halt the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities to new countries. Like spent fuel reprocessing facilities, enrichment facilities can provide either fuel for nuclear power or fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Yet, the September 2007 statement of principles appeared to move away from that stance, indicating that countries who joined GNEP “would not give up any rights” to enrichment or reprocessing and that the initiative intended to “develop and demonstrate, inter alia, advanced technologies for recycling spent fuel for deployment in facilities that do not separate pure plutonium.” (See ACT, October 2007. )

GNEP partners held their first steering committee meeting Dec. 19, adopting a work plan calling for two more such meetings this year and a ministerial-level executive committee meeting late this year. The meetings would be timed so that the ministerial-level gathering would be presented with the initial results of two working groups, which will be studying issues of nuclear infrastructure and reliable fuel services. The steering committee named Edward McGinnis, a U.S. deputy assistant energy secretary, as chairman of the group, along with vice chairmen from China, France, and Japan.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.

 


 

Click here to comment on this article.

U.S.-NK Clash on Nuclear Deadline

Peter Crail

North Korea missed Dec. 31 deadlines to disable its nuclear reactor complex and declare all of its nuclear programs, albeit for different reasons. The disablement process is nearly complete, but was held up primarily for technical reasons as one of the final steps involves a months-long process of removing and cooling the spent fuel in the Yongbyon reactor. In regard to the declaration, however, the United States asserts that North Korea has not provided a full accounting of all of its programs while Pyongyang alleges that a declaration was provided in November.

Declaration Delayed, Declaration Denied

One of the key components of an Oct. 3 six-party talks agreement involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States was North Korea’s obligation to provide a “complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs—including clarification regarding the uranium issue—by the end of the year.” (See ACT, November 2007. ) North Korea asserts that it provided a declaration as required in November 2007. The official Korean Central News Agency released a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement Jan. 4 that declared that North Korea “worked out a report on the nuclear declaration in November last year and notified the U.S. side of its contents.”

When asked by reporters if North Korea had provided a declaration, Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, explained that “they discussed what elements should be in a declaration, and it was clearly not a complete and correct declaration.” He added that any formal declaration would have to be provided to the Chinese, the coordinator of the six-party process. Hill traveled to the region and Moscow to meet with his Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and South Korean counterparts in early January.

“The uranium issue,” as referenced in the Oct. 3 statement, is chief among U.S. concerns about the declaration. Pyongyang is suspected to have pursued a program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Pyongyang has acquired or attempted to acquire a variety of materials and components related to a uranium-enrichment program. Moreover, in his 2006 autobiography, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stated that a proliferation network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan provided North Korea with about 20 gas centrifuges used in the uranium-enrichment process during the mid- to late-1990s.

North Korea continues to deny that it pursued a uranium-enrichment capability and sought to convince U.S. officials last November that materials it imported that may be used for an enrichment facility were intended for other purposes. (See ACT, December 2007. ) The materials shown to the U.S. officials did not include the centrifuges provided by the Khan network.

Since North Korea’s failure to meet the year-end deadline for providing its declaration, U.S. officials have emphasized that what matters is the content of the declaration, rather than the timing. Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters Jan. 3 that Pyongyang “can produce it at any time, and we’re going to encourage them to do so as soon as possible, but also they should not sacrifice completeness for speed.” Speaking to reporters Jan. 10, however, Hill stated that “it would be desirable” if the declaration and disablement were completed by the end of February when South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak takes office.

Beijing reacted to the missed deadlines by underlining that some delay was to be expected. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu told reporters Jan. 3 that “[t]he pace is faster in some areas and slower in some areas,” adding that “this is natural.”

Although North Korea insisted that it was adhering to its own commitments, Pyongyang alleged that the commitments made by the other parties were not being completed on schedule. The North Korean Foreign Ministry statement asserted that the energy assistance that it was to receive “was being steadily delayed.”

China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea pledged to provide North Korea with 900,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent as part of the Oct. 3 agreement. In order to accommodate the limited amount of fuel oil North Korea could import during a given month, the parties agreed that Russia and the United States would continue to deliver the fuel oil while China and South Korea provided other forms of energy-related assistance.

Although no deadline was stipulated for the completion of the energy assistance to North Korea, Hill told reporters Oct. 3 that the intention was to complete the process by the end of the year. (See ACT, November 2007. ) Since the October agreement, North Korea has received 50,000 tons of fuel oil from the United States. Following a delay in Russia’s delivery of fuel oil to North Korea in December, Moscow indicated that it intends to complete its shipment of 50,000 tons of fuel oil by Jan. 21.

At the end of December, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul began making arrangements regarding the types of energy assistance China and South Korea would provide for North Korea as part of the six-party agreement. A diplomatic source told Arms Control Today Jan. 9 that, although preparations were being made to carry out this assistance, the discussions are still ongoing.

North Korea also accused the United States of failing to honor its commitments to remove the country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and to stop punishing it under the Trading with the Enemy Act. In February 2007, Washington agreed to begin the process of carrying out both of these actions. During a Dec. 13 briefing, a State Department official indicated that the United States remains committed to finalizing these steps, but only when a complete declaration has been received and disablement has been completed.

U.S. Looks to Disablement Completion, Next Steps

Disabling the nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon was the second task to be completed by the end of the year. This process, which entailed a series of 11 steps to make the facilities inoperable for at least a year, is largely being carried out by U.S. technicians with North Korean assistance. The reason behind the missed deadline is largely technical because one of the final steps, unloading the spent fuel rods from the reactor, is estimated to take about 100 days. The process of unloading the fuel rods began in mid-December.

Unlike the delay in receiving the North Korean declaration, U.S. officials have welcomed the progress made on disablement. Hill told reporters Jan. 7 that “some 75 percent” of the disablement steps have been completed, adding that “the disabling has gone pretty well and continues to go on.”

In the Oct. 3 agreement, the United States agreed to lead the disablement activities and provide for their initial funding. As of the start of 2008, nearly the entire cost of the process has been borne by Washington. There has been some consideration, however, of potential burden-sharing arrangements with the other parties. (See ACT, December 2007. ) In this regard, a Department of Energy official told Arms Control Today Dec. 12 that “it would make the most sense, in the context of cooperation, for another party which can use the plutonium in the spent fuel to bear the cost of removing it and taking it out of the country.” The official also noted that this is also the highest-cost endeavor of the disablement steps.

In spite of the U.S. commitment to continuing the disablement process, legal impediments may slow or halt Washington’s ability to continue to fund and carry out the work. It may also hinder its ability to dismantle the North Korean facilities should there be an agreement on such an effort.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in 1994 prohibits the United States from providing nonhumanitarian assistance to states that have detonated a nuclear weapon and are not nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea tested a nuclear device in October 2006. Due to this restriction, the only funding source that may be used for North Korean disablement activities is the State Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund (NDF).

Although NDF funds are not restricted under the Glenn amendment, there are other limitations on its long-term use for disablement and dismantlement in North Korea. In a Dec. 17 interview, the Energy Department official explained a number of these constraints, in particular, the fact that the cost of the work in North Korea is likely to exceed the NDF annual budget, which was $38 million in fiscal year 2007. Moreover, the official indicated that the NDF was designed to respond to emergency nonproliferation needs. Now that disablement and the six-party process has been going on for sometime, “the process has become institutionalized,” the official said, reducing the justification for the use of NDF funding.

In order to get around such constraints, the Energy Department has been holding discussions with Congress in order to carve out an exception to the application of the Glenn amendment specifically for disablement and dismantlement activities in North Korea. Congress has taken some steps to address the funding concerns. A $10 million earmark for Energy Department nuclear disablement activities in North Korea was included in the omnibus appropriations legislation that was signed into law in December.

Click here to comment on this article.

Congress Alters Bush’s Fuel Cycle Plans

Miles A. Pomper

Lawmakers in December approved legislation that would sharply scale back the Bush administration’s proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and cut money for an unrelated facility meant to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the annual funding measure includes $50 million toward efforts to establish an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The provisions were included in a fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill that Congress approved in mid-December. President George W. Bush signed the legislation Dec. 26.

GNEP, Fuel Disposal, and Reprocessing

GNEP seeks to develop new nuclear technologies, particularly for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and new international nuclear fuel arrangements. Administration officials claim that these efforts will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear proliferation. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of spent fuel reprocessing technologies, be prohibitively expensive, fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly, and lack any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.

GNEP’s critics were bolstered by an October report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel, commissioned by the Department of Energy, that concluded that the department should “not move forward” with the program, particularly efforts to develop new commercial-scale facilities for reprocessing and for burning a new type of nuclear fuel. (See ACT, December 2007. )

The funding bill provides money for research but blocks any expenditures for constructing commercial facilities or technology demonstration projects. Rather than providing the $395 million Bush had requested for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) with nearly all of the funds going for GNEP, lawmakers allocated only $181 million for AFCI.

The measure also falls significantly short of the Bush administration’s request for funds for a new facility at Savannah River, South Carolina, that will mix weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium to make new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors.

Under a 2000 agreement, the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of such plutonium but have not yet disposed of any. The Bush administration had pushed construction of the Savannah River facility as its means of meeting that goal, but ground was broken there only a few months ago. Funding for the project has trickled out for years as some lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, have said other strategies should be employed because of the project’s costs, safety concerns, and potential proliferation risks and the failure of Russia to move forward on its end of the deal. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Indicating continued concerns, lawmakers approved $100 million less than the $334 million the administration had requested for construction of the facility. They cut Bush’s request for funding for other project costs at the facility from $97.5 million to $47.5 million, and they added a requirement that the Government Accountability Office monitor the facility’s construction and provide reports every three months on the progress of construction and associated scope, costs, and schedules.

Lawmakers also made clear that a recent administration effort to restructure the 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement in a fashion more to Russia’s liking had done little to ease their belief that Russia was not upholding its end of the bargain. (See ACT, December 2007. ) The legislation redirects all of the $208 million in funds that Congress had previously set aside to meet a $400 million U.S. pledge to help Russia meet its commitment under the deal.

Nuclear Fuel Bank

Congress authorized and appropriated $50 million toward the establishment of an international nuclear fuel bank under IAEA auspices. Such a fuel supply reserve would be aimed at countries that “have made the sovereign choice to develop their civilian nuclear energy industry based on foreign sources of nuclear fuel and therefore have no requirement to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel enrichment capability.”

Conferees on the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill that provided the policy guidance for this contribution noted that “additional work will be required in order to provide appropriate guidance to the executive branch regarding criteria for access by foreign countries to any fuel bank established at the IAEA with materials or funds provided by the United States.”

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and the United States and other nuclear fuel producers have urged the creation of such a fuel bank in order to deter additional countries from establishing facilities to produce nuclear fuel. They worry that such facilities could lead to additional nuclear weapons proliferation because many of the same facilities used to produce nuclear fuel can also provide the fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) used in nuclear weapons.

The U.S. contribution would add to $300 million worth of low-enriched uranium (LEU) that Russia pledged last year to a potential fuel bank. (See ACT, October 2007. ) These donations are intended to jump-start an effort by ElBaradei and the private Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to establish such a fuel bank in order to guarantee that states without fuel-making facilities can turn to the international body if their supplies are cut off for reasons other than commercial disputes or nonproliferation violations. In 2006, U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet offered to donate $50 million through the NTI to establish an LEU stockpile owned and managed by the IAEA under two conditions: that, within two years, one or several IAEA member states contributed an additional $100 million and that the agency took the necessary steps to establish it. (See ACT, November 2006. )

Russia has said that it is in the process of establishing such a facility at Angarsk in Siberia, where it would maintain control of the enrichment technology but allow other countries to participate as investors. It has already signed up Kazakhstan as a participant and is in the middle of negotiating such an agreement with Armenia.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s nuclear agency, told the Russian news agency RIA Novisti Dec. 11 that “[a]n agreement with the IAEA to establish guaranteed nuclear fuel reserves at the international uranium center in is almost ready and we hope to sign it in the first months of next year.”

Given the movement toward the establishment of such a facility, U.S. lawmakers chose to broaden the potential use of a separate fuel reserve of 17 tons of LEU that the United States had established in 2005, said then to be worth more than $500 million. (See ACT, November 2005. ) Under the legislation, U.S. companies would also be permitted to purchase the fuel in the event of a supply disruption. Previously, the reserve was limited to countries that forgo enrichment and reprocessing.

Click here to comment on this article.

U.S., Russia Recast Plutonium-Disposition Pact

Miles A. Pomper

After struggling for seven years to move forward with an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium each, the United States has agreed to recast the accord to reflect Russian preferences on the method of disposition more closely.

Russia has long viewed plutonium as an untapped energy resource and sought to find means to use it as part of the fuel for its planned fast nuclear reactors. These reactors when operating in “breeder” mode are capable of producing more plutonium than they burn. Russia has an estimated stockpile of 120-170 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, including the 34 tons set for disposal.

The United States, on the other hand, has emphasized the arms control benefits of reducing plutonium stockpiles and the proliferation dangers from plutonium, including the threat of theft by terrorists. Since the 1990s, Washington has veered between two disposition methods: the conversion of some of excess weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in dedicated reactors or immobilization of the weapons-grade plutonium with high-level radioactive waste. However, the Bush administration has recently warmed to the idea of using plutonium as a source of energy, making the reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium a centerpiece of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

In a joint statement announced Nov. 19, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergei Kiriyenko generally endorsed the Russian approach. Under the plan, the United States will cooperate with Russia to convert the Russian weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel, made of plutonium and depleted uranium. Starting in 2012, Russia would irradiate this fuel, eventually employing at least two reactors, a BN-600 fast reactor currently operating at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant and a more advanced BN-800 fast reactor under construction at the same site.

The statement said the two countries also intend to continue working together on development of an advanced gas-cooled, high-temperature reactor, another potential means to dispose of Russia’s plutonium. That reactor is initially intended to burn weapons-grade plutonium at Seversk where the United States is also supporting an effort to replace two plutonium-production reactors that are used to generate electricity. Such reactors are viewed as more proliferation resistant because their fuels have a high burn-up rate and their spent fuel is difficult to reprocess.

Under the plan, Russia agreed to dispose of the surplus weapons-grade plutonium “without creating new stocks of separated weapon[s]-grade plutonium.” Moscow will operate the fast reactors in a “burner” mode rather than a breeder mode, by removing the breeding blanket of depleted uranium around the reactor core. Officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy, said that under such a scheme the reactors will still produce plutonium as part of the reaction but consume far more plutonium fuel, thereby reducing the stockpile. Together the reactors would run through about 1.5 tons of plutonium per year.

The initial 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement prohibited Russia from reprocessing any additional plutonium from the spent fuel used in the fast reactors until all of the original 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium had been irradiated.

The new plan would amend that agreement to state that no fuel from the BN-600 reactor could be reprocessed. But it would permit 30 percent of the spent fuel from the BN-800 reactor to be reprocessed if this were done as part of the kind of advanced reprocessing program that is backed by GNEP. Other details need to be worked out in the coming months by negotiators from the two countries.

The deal is likely to face close scrutiny from Congress. Key House lawmakers such as Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, and David Hobson (R-Ohio), the panel’s ranking member, have raised questions about any Russian effort that would lead to the production of new plutonium.

Under the 2000 agreement, the United States pledged to contribute $400 million to the Russian effort. But previously, congressional and administration officials had balked at providing funds for a disposition program that involved the fast reactors rather than conventional light-water reactors. A pending fiscal year 2008 energy and water appropriations bill, which has been approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, would not provide funds for such an effort.

Visclosky indicated Nov. 20 that he was in no rush to help the administration and was skeptical of its ability to finalize a deal.

“It would be irresponsible to change Congressional priorities before there is a formal government-to-government agreement with the Russian government. This announcement hasn’t changed anything from my perspective,” Visclosky said in a statement.

Still, the United States has limited leverage in forcing Russia to follow its disposition preferences, given that such funds would only represent around 10-20 percent of the project’s total cost and Russia is benefiting from a massive surge in revenues from oil and natural gas exports.

In the United States, the executive branch and Congress also squared off for years about how to meet the U.S. commitment under the deal, with the administration choosing to dispose of the plutonium in MOX fuel rather than immobilizing it. Construction of a facility to fabricate the fuel recently began at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

In September, Bodman announced that the United States would remove nine metric tons of plutonium in the coming decades from retired, dismantled nuclear warheads, which would likely permit the United States to surpass the goals of the 2000 agreement. (See ACT, October 2007. )

After struggling for seven years to move forward with an agreement to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium each, the United States has agreed to recast the accord to reflect Russian preferences...

Nuclear Material Consolidation Schedule Lags

Alex Bollfrass

Despite nearly two years of deliberations, the Department of Energy lags in presenting plans for the consolidation and disposal of fissile and other high-risk nuclear material, congressional investigators have concluded.

The Energy Department currently intends to save security costs by halving the number of facilities storing significant quantities of fissile matter, referred to as special nuclear material. However, this objective may change to conform to the as-of-yet-unveiled Complex Transformation program, an effort to refashion the nuclear weapons complex.

In a report released Oct. 4, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) researchers found that the body charged with planning the consolidation and reduction, the Nuclear Materials Disposition and Consolidation Coordination Committee, has only drafted two of eight implementation plans after almost two years of work. All eight plans are not likely to be completed by the Energy Department’s own deadline of December 2008.

Each implementation plan either aims to pool material from various sites or to rid an individual site of a particular material. It consists of a description of the problems created by the status quo and a list of cost-evaluated alternatives with a recommended course of action.

The GAO report cites the committee’s frequent leadership turnover and unresolved issues of bureaucratic authority and decision-making as the chief reasons for the delay.

The current chair of the committee, Charles Anderson, responded to GAO’s criticism in a Sept. 11 letter charging that the report “lack[ed] balance and objectivity” for its failure to sufficiently recognize progress in consolidating material within sites. He did agree in principle with the “recommendations to identify consolidation and disposition plan approval authority(ies), clarify organizational roles and responsibilities, and establish performance measures.”

The report added to congressional impatience with the Energy Department, which in 2005 promised to present finalized plans within a year or two. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a Nov. 4 statement, “We’re just trying to get to the point where [the Energy Department] has a plan. Two years have passed by since we asked about a plan, and still no plan.”

The two implementation plans that have been drafted, for consolidating and disposing of plutonium-239 and for disposing of uranium-233, are judged by the GAO’s investigators as too light on detail to ensure their execution according to schedule and within budget.

The plan for plutonium-239, a fissile material used in nuclear warheads, envisions consolidating material to Savannah River Site in South Carolina from the Hanford Site and the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. The uranium-233 plan calls for stabilizing the weapons-usable material by blending it with other uranium isotopes and moving it for storage to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee or to radioactive waste sites.

The remaining six implementation plans remove special nuclear material from various sites, in whole or in part, reducing from 10 to five the number of facilities hosting material requiring the highest level of security. Such restructuring would match the now-defunct objective of restricting the use of special nuclear material in large quantities at production and test sites, as well as not employing national laboratories for production of such material. This was envisioned in the Energy Department’s Complex 2030, an initiative to refashion the nuclear weapons complex that has since been derailed by congressional opposition.

The Energy Department’s replacement proposal, Complex Transformation, expected to be released publicly in December, scraps the provision to build a new plutonium pit production facility for nuclear weapons in favor of locating pit manufacturing in an existing facility. According to press reports, the existing facility allegedly favored by the department is Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Bush Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Program Suffers Blows

Miles A. Pomper

After a sharply critical report from a high-level independent panel and amid continued criticism from Congress, the Bush administration appears to be scaling back its ambitions for the domestic leg of its controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Meanwhile, other international nuclear fuel supply efforts seem to be attracting more attention.

Administration officials have claimed that the initiative, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear proliferation. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to significantly ease waste disposal challenges without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.

An Oct. 29 report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel, commissioned by the Department of Energy, sided strongly with the critics, concluding that the department should “not move forward” with GNEP, particularly efforts to develop new commercial-scale facilities for reprocessing and for burning a new type of nuclear fuel. Citing a lack of urgency and appropriate technical knowledge, the NRC panel said the department should return to an earlier course in which it conducted a “less aggressive research program.”

The panel’s judgment echoes criticism from most lawmakers on relevant committees on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees  have approved legislation that would substantially cut funds for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which underpins GNEP, and limit spending to research. (See ACT, October 2007. )

Indeed, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, told the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee Nov. 14 that rather than annually confront such budget battles, he would personally favor funding GNEP in the future with a portion of a fee on electricity generation that Congress has imposed on nuclear power plant operators to pay for disposing of spent fuel. He said that the U.S. government has accumulated close to $20 billion from this fee, which has yet to be spent because of continued political wrangling over a planned permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The GNEP program calls for research on new reprocessing technologies that administration officials say will not yield pure separated plutonium but a mixture, including plutonium, that is less applicable to making bombs. GNEP further calls for construction of new advanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel. The administration also claims that doing so will reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at nuclear reactors so that the United States will not have to build another permanent repository.

The proposal has drawn criticism, in part because facilities that reprocess spent fuel for plutonium-based fuels might also be used to harvest plutonium for nuclear bombs. By establishing such facilities, critics say, the United States might be encouraging other countries to do so as well, perhaps leading to nuclear weapons proliferation. Because of such concerns, the United States had shied away from spent fuel reprocessing for nearly three decades until GNEP was launched in 2006.

Department officials had indicated that, by the summer of 2008, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman would decide whether to build new commercial-scale fuel facilities and “fast” reactors that could produce and burn such new fuels. By that time, four industry groups are slated to provide studies examining financial, technical, and other issues.

The NRC panel said making such a decision next year would be unnecessarily hasty. “Domestic waste management, security, and fuel supply needs are not adequate to justify early deployment of commercial-scale reprocessing and fast-reactor facilities,” the panel wrote.

In particular, the panel said it was not clear if a second waste repository would be needed. It also argued that the knowledge of appropriate technologies was not sufficient to move to commercial-scale facilities. It said the cost of the program would be far more expensive than proceeding with the current once-through nuclear fuel cycle, a conclusion backed by the Congressional Budget Office in testimony before the Senate panel.

The NRC panel also said that “qualifying” the new fuel—ensuring it could be used appropriately in the reactor—would take many years. Instead the panel advocated returning to a lower-level research program to provide more basic information before choosing any particular path forward.

In his testimony before the Senate committee, Spurgeon acknowledged that the department would not be ready to move forward with commercial deployment of any new reprocessing technologies in the near future.

After the hearing, he told reporters that he did not expect Bodman next summer to call for any immediate construction of commercial-scale facilities using existing technologies employed by France and Japan that separate pure plutonium, an approach championed by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the panel’s ranking member. Rather, Spurgeon said the department would be charting a “technology path” forward for research, though his remarks did not close out the possibility of using COEX, a process nearly ready for commercial deployment that extracts and precipitates uranium and plutonium (and possibly neptunium) together so that plutonium is never separated on its own.

Still, Spurgeon pointed to some progress in the program’s international dimension when Italy on Nov. 13 became the 17th country to join GNEP. Sixteen countries had signed GNEP’s statement of principles in September, although the list did not include such important nuclear energy consumers and producers as Germany and the United Kingdom. Also, it is not clear how much weight Rome’s participation carries. Italy at one time had five power reactors and two under construction; but it shut down all of its nuclear power plants after a 1987 referendum in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

GNEP received a bigger boost on Nov. 29 when Canada, the world’s largest uranium producer, joined the partnership.

Ottawa had held back from joining the partnership earlier amid political controversy over whether GNEP would require Canada to accept spent fuel from other country or  limit its ability to enrich its own fuel.

Multilateral Fuel-Cycle Alternatives

Nevertheless, countries are putting more emphasis on efforts other than GNEP to control the nuclear fuel cycle, primarily aiming at its “front end.” Such efforts seek to limit the spread of technologies such as uranium enrichment, which can produce low-enriched uranium for fresh nuclear fuel, or highly enriched uranium, which can also be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons. Concerns over uranium enrichment have been at the center of the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program (see page xx). By contrast, GNEP primarily focuses on “back end” technologies that address how to deal with spent fuel from nuclear reactors.

In September, the U.S. administration had indicated that although the program was conceived in the wake of President George W. Bush’s February 2004 call to halt the spread of enrichment or reprocessing facilities to new countries, it would not require such forbearance as a condition of GNEP membership.

“We’re not asking countries to sign a statement that they will never enrich or never reprocess,” Spurgeon elaborated in an October interview with Arms Control Today.

The administration has taken other steps to encourage participation in the partnership. For example, it has said that a multinational steering committee, not the United States, will dictate GNEP’s direction and that the partnership will operate by consensus.

Nonetheless, multinational enrichment efforts seem to be moving more rapidly in the international arena than GNEP’s focus on reprocessing.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s atomic energy agency, told reporters after the September GNEP meeting that the U.S. initiative was one of only several such efforts and its importance should not be overemphasized.

Russia and Kazakhstan on Sept. 5 announced that they had inaugurated the use of an enrichment facility in Angarsk, Siberia, as an international center with joint ownership. The center is eventually envisaged as a multinational operation that will produce low-enriched uranium fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring.

Armenia took a step toward that goal Nov. 29, announcing that it would participate in the center. Moerover, Spasskiy told Platts Nuclear Fuel in September that he expected Ukraine to join the venture before the end of the year and that Mongolia and South Korea are closely studying participation. Spasskiy’s boss, Sergey Kiriyenko, told Russian reporters in October that Australia and Japan also have indicated interest in participation, although Kiriyenko said that Japan has insisted that the facility first be placed under IAEA safeguards. Kiriyenko said an agreement with the agency could be in place by the middle of 2008.

South Africa is another potential candidate for an enrichment center. In September, South Africa declined to participate in GNEP, dealing a serious blow to U.S. ambitions for the program. Spurgeon claims that South Africa may still participate, saying its representatives “had a lot of questions” and a “misunderstanding” about GNEP’s requirements, particularly whether South Africa would have to forgo enrichment or reprocessing.

But Tseliso Maqubela, chief director for nuclear energy at the South African Department of Minerals and Energy, told Platts NuclearFuel in September that South Africa wished to set up a centrifuge enrichment facility on its territory in which it could utilize the shared technology of foreign partners and that if South Africa was unable to do so, it would develop the technology domestically. Major international enrichment companies have generally balked at providing foreign countries with access to the proliferation-sensitive technology.

In a Sept. 24 Platts NuclearFuel interview, French Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Alain Bugat said that France would open a new centrifuge enrichment plant under construction to “international partnerships” and would provide details within a few months. The French enrichment company Eurodif has involved Belgium, Italy, and Spain (and formerly Iran) as international partners in its gaseous diffusion plant at Tricastin.

Revived U.S.-Indian Deal Heads to IAEA

Wade Boese

After appearing close to expiration, the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation deal was recently resuscitated when some Indian lawmakers relaxed their opposition to government talks with the world’s nuclear monitoring agency. The deal’s recovery, however, could be short lived if the consultations falter or fail to satisfy the lawmakers.

Almost exactly one month after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh informed President George W. Bush that their two-year-old initiative had run into “difficulties,” Singh’s coalition government Nov. 16 announced that the deal had won clearance to move ahead. That approval came when India’s Communist parties and their allies, whose votes help keep the coalition in power, consented to the government holding talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which promotes and monitors civilian nuclear activities worldwide.

Indian officials traveled Nov. 21 to the agency’s Vienna headquarters to begin their discussions on a safeguards arrangement for the nuclear facilities that New Delhi designates as serving civilian rather than military purposes. Safeguards are mechanisms, such as inspections and remote monitoring, that are intended to ensure that civilian nuclear programs are not contributing to the development of nuclear bombs.

India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974 using a device derived in part from U.S. and Canadian exports designated for “peaceful” purposes. Now estimated to have a stockpile of up to 100 warheads, New Delhi has resisted foreign pressure to forswear future nuclear testing and stop producing nuclear material for bombs.

Only Indian facilities with IAEA safeguards would be eligible for any new nuclear commerce opportunities created through the Bush administration’s drive to peel back nearly three decades of various U.S. and multilateral nuclear trade prohibitions on India that grew out of its 1974 blast. To take advantage of Washington’s work, which is the heart of the July 2005 U.S.-Indian deal, New Delhi announced in March 2006 that eight more nuclear power reactors would join six others already under IAEA safeguards. Another eight reactors would be off-limits to international oversight and ineligible for foreign nuclear supplies.

India has said that it wants “India-specific” safeguards to apply to the reactors and other facilities it is classifying as civilian. Indian officials have not publicly explained how these safeguards might differ from India’s existing safeguards, but reports exist that New Delhi, among other things, wants flexibility to withdraw facilities from safeguards in the event that foreign nuclear supplies are cut off, even if it is the result of renewed Indian nuclear testing.

India-specific safeguards that depart dramatically from existing arrangements could face more difficulty winning the approval of the agency’s 35 member-state Board of Governors, which currently includes India’s neighbor and rival, Pakistan. The board, which next meets March 3-7, 2008, typically approves safeguards by consensus.

The Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition also pledged that a committee that includes the leftist parties would review any completed IAEA agreement. Whether that panel has the power to reject the agreement is unclear.

Still, if they are dissatisfied, the leftist parties could again threaten to withdraw their support for the coalition government. The earlier use of this threat helped stall the effort previously and led to creation of the committee because Singh’s Congress Party feared that a leftist withdrawal could trigger early elections that would unseat the government. The leftist parties have condemned the overall U.S.-Indian initiative, charging that Singh is cozying up too much to Washington and compromising Indian sovereignty.

The main Indian opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has vehemently criticized the deal as a covert U.S. attempt to constrain India’s nuclear weapons complex. In a Nov. 7 statement, the party blasted Singh as making a “significant strategic blunder” and called for the deal to be “renegotiated and not hustled through as the UPA government is attempting.”

If Singh can navigate the deal through India’s turbulent politics and the IAEA, future nuclear cooperation will still depend on the Bush administration winning final approval for expanding nuclear trade with India from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Congress, which gave its preliminary and qualified approval last December. (See ACT, January/February 2007. ) Before Congress reconsiders the proposed U.S.-Indian bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, U.S. law requires that the NSG, which operates by consensus, adjust current guidelines that restrict trade with states, such as India, that do not subject their entire nuclear enterprise to IAEA safeguards. The next plenary meeting of the NSG is scheduled for May 2008, but a special session could be convened if the IAEA Board of Governors approves a new safeguards agreement with India.

The Bush administration has indicated it wants the deal finalized in 2008, but with U.S. elections scheduled for next November, the time for congressional action could be short.

Letter to the Editor: Detecting Clandestine Enrichment

James Acton

Trevor Findlay (“Looking back: The Additional Protocol,” Nov. 2007)  focused on the difficulties of verifying large bulk-handling facilities in his survey of future challenges. In reality, however, it is still the detection of clandestine nuclear activities that is the toughest challenge facing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—exactly the problem that prompted a reworking of the safeguards regime in the 1990s. While the main product of that rethink, the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, has considerably enhanced the IAEA’s ability to detect certain clandestine activities, it has done much less to increase the IAEA’s prospects for detecting small gas centrifuge enrichment plants (GCEPs). Indeed, although David Albright and Jacqueline Shire (“A Witches’ Brew? Evaluating Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Progress,” Nov. 2007) are absolutely right to highlight the importance of Iran restoring implementation of its version of the additional protocol, it is also surely true that this step alone would be insufficient to rebuild international confidence that Iran is not  carrying out undeclared centrifuge activity.

Given the putative nuclear renaissance and the economic attractiveness of the gas centrifuge as an enrichment technology, there is a danger that clandestine GCEPs could become de rigeur for proliferation. The most effective way to reduce this threat is to prevent the spread of gas centrifuge technology (and hence the knowledge of how to build and operate clandestine plants). Indeed, proposals that offer a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel to states that voluntarily agree not to exercise their right to enrich could help accomplish this. Whether such fuel guarantees will be widely adopted, however, remains unclear.

In parallel, efforts also need to be made to enhance the IAEA’s ability to detect clandestine GCEPs. This is an extremely tough problem since environmental emissions from centrifuge plants are very small and hence wide area environmental monitoring (as envisaged by the additional protocol and discussed by Findlay) is not an realistic option for detecting them.

One approach to detecting clandestine GCEPs is to pay greater attention to the production of centrifuges and their components. As Albright and Shire point out, the manufacture of centrifuges is a complicated, demanding and expensive process; there are likely to be interconnections between a declared centrifuge manufacturing program and a clandestine one. Giving the IAEA greater legal rights to inspect facilities and talk to personnel involved in the manufacture of centrifuges may help it uncover such links. At the very least, permitting the IAEA to tag key centrifuge components would prevent a state from using a declared facility for the production of centrifuges for an undeclared programme.

The IAEA could also be given greater powers to monitor non-nuclear materials that are relevant to enrichment—such as fluorine gas. It would, of course, be utterly impractical to attempt any kind of materials accountancy on fluorine, but given that 70—80% of fluorine is used in the synthesis of uranium hexafluoride for enrichment,[1] declarations by member states on its production and use could potentially be useful for safeguards purposes. For instance, the discovery of undeclared fluorine manufacture (by open source analysis or even, conceivably, environmental monitoring) would be an indicator of clandestine nuclear activity. Fluorine is not the only non-nuclear material relevant to enrichment (maraging steel is another). Monitoring a few key non-nuclear materials could make a useful contribution to the safeguards system.

Finally, there is a need for national intelligence services to be more willing to share information with the IAEA (under article VIII.A of its statute the IAEA is entitled to receive and utilise such information). Indeed, the IAEA is in a unique position to compare intelligence data (ideally from a range of sources) with state declarations and information from its own inspectors. The results from such an analysis can be very useful in helping to guide a search for clandestine nuclear activities. National intelligence data is already used in this way to some extent, but by being more willing to share it, national governments could significantly enhance the IAEA’s ability to detect clandestine nuclear activity.

Unfortunately, the prospects for any improvements in the safeguards regime are bleak right now. As demonstrated by the debacle of “Committee 25” (which was tasked with finding ways of strengthening the safeguards system that would not require any new legal authority for the IAEA), few states have any appetite for more intrusive or effective verification. Ultimately, Findlay may well be right: a “punctuation”—quite possibly a proliferation shock—may be required to generate the international consensus required for reform. It would, however, clearly be desirable if the nonproliferation regime could be strengthened before further proliferation occurs.

The 2010 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the regime. Success in strengthening the non-proliferation component of the regime (both in 2010 and beyond) will depend upon the burden of increased verification being sweetened by parallel concessions elsewhere. All states need to consider what form such concessions should take—but a particular responsibility must lie with the nuclear-weapon states and their willingness to make greater steps toward disarmament.

 


James Acton is a lecturer at the Centre for Science and Security Studies’ Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His previous research projects have included an analysis of IAEA safegaurds in Iran and a study on the detection of clandestine weaponization activities.


 

ENDNOTE

1. N. N. Greenwood and A. Earnshaw, “Chemistry of the Elements”, second edition, (Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997), p. 797.


Arms Control Today welcomes letters from our readers. Letters should be under 600 words and should include the writer's full name, address and daytime phone number. Please put "LETTER TO THE EDITOR" in the subject line of the E-mail. Letters may be edited for space. E-mail to the Editor.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Fissile Material