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Fissile Material

Uzbek Nuclear Material Removed

Carina Linder

Under a classified mission, spent fuel containing 63 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was successfully returned to Russia from Uzbekistan, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced April 20.

Monitored by the IAEA, the bomb-grade spent nuclear material was transported in four separate shipments from the Uzbekistan Institute of Nuclear Physics to the Mayak plant in Russia, where it will be reprocessed over the next several years. The high-security operation was conducted jointly by the United States, the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the IAEA as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), an NNSA program to repatriate nuclear and radiological materials from around the globe.

The transportation of the nuclear material, enough to produce at least two nuclear weapons, was carried out over a course of 16 days. The Uzbek material was of “particular concern” because it had lost much of its radioactivity and therefore would be easier to handle by terrorists or others. The mission was completed on April 19, after six years of planning.

The HEU was originally supplied to Uzbekistan by the Soviet Union for use in its 10-megawatt research reactor, located near the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. The reactor currently produces isotopes for medical purposes.

This is the first time Russian HEU spent fuel has been returned to Russia from other countries under a 2005 agreement on nuclear security cooperation between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (See ACT, March 2005.) Indeed, “[i]t is the first time that fuel used in a research reactor has been repatriated to Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union,” the IAEA noted. Still, roughly 1,000 kilograms of spent Russian-origin HEU fuel remains abroad, according to estimates by scientists at Princeton University.

The shipment follows earlier IAEA- and/or GTRI-supported operations made in order to transfer un-irradiated reactor fuel containing HEU back to its country of origin. Approximately 186 kilograms of HEU fresh fuel have been returned to Russia from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Libya, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Uzbekistan under the GTRI program, according to the NNSA. There are more than 100 research reactors around the world still running on weapons-grade HEU.


Another Chance for the Fissile Production Ban

Daryl G. Kimball

Cutting off production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—has been on the international nonproliferation and arms control agenda for decades. But since the late 1990s, the concept has been relegated to the diplomatic shadows as talks on a global verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) have sputtered due to differences over negotiating priorities. The current impasse is due to U.S. opposition to the negotiation of a verifiable treaty or to discussions on other arms topics at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament.

Now, with its controversial proposal for full civil nuclear assistance to India, the Bush administration has, perhaps inadvertently, put the fissile material cutoff back in the spot light. To jump-start progress on an FMCT and help ensure that civil nuclear trade with India will not aid its weapons program, Congress and the international community must press for concrete action on the fissile production cutoff.

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush agreed to a plan that would “separate” India’s civil and military nuclear programs and phase-in safeguards on more but far from all of its civil nuclear reactors. Bush then proposed India-specific exemptions to U.S. laws and the guidelines of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which restrict trade with non-nuclear-weapon states, including India, that do not accept safeguards over all their nuclear facilities.

Singh also agreed that India would “assume the same responsibilities and practices” as other countries with advanced nuclear capabilities. Bush administration officials such as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns acknowledge that “the United States and many of the other nuclear powers do have a moratorium on fissile material production.” On March 23, he told reporters that the administration would “encourage other countries to adopt the same practice.”

In the world of nuclear politics, however, encouragement alone is not enough. Burns and other U.S. negotiators failed to win any tangible commitments from India to limit its fissile material production capacity. Singh proudly declared, “[T]here will be no capping of our strategic program,” and “no constraint has been placed on our right to construct new facilities for strategic purposes.”

Indeed, the plan would allow India to exclude from safeguards all of its military production facilities, plus as many as eight additional power reactors and existing spent nuclear fuel. India’s fast breeder reactors, which are particularly well suited for weapons-grade plutonium production, would be kept off-limits.

As a result, a growing number of congressional members and NSG states believe the administration gave up too much and got few, if any, nonproliferation benefits. They are concerned that the proposal would implicitly endorse, if not indirectly assist the growth of India’s nuclear arsenal. Indeed, foreign nuclear reactor fuel supplies could free up India’s limited uranium reserves for the sole purpose of adding to its arsenal of 50-100 nuclear bombs. Not only would the U.S. proposal undermine the nonproliferation system, but it could also lead Pakistan to increase its fissile production and tempt China to resume fissile production for weapons.

Many policymakers are also asking why there should be a special loophole for a state that has not agreed to halt fissile material production or sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as the international community has called on India to do. Following India’s and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear blasts, the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1172, which urges both states to “stop their nuclear weapons development programmes [and] cease any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”

U.S. and Indian diplomats have tried to deflect suggestions that the deal should place limits on India ’s bomb program, noting that India has declared support for U.S. efforts to negotiate an FMCT. This pledge means little given that India understandably prefers a verifiable cutoff treaty, a goal the Bush administration opposes and claims (incorrectly) is unattainable.

Given the current political stalemate in Geneva, talks might only begin if the United States finally agreed to negotiations on an FMCT “without prejudice” to the final outcome on verification and allowed discussions on other weapons issues of concern to China, Russia, and non-nuclear-weapon states. Getting talks started would be useful but insufficient. China, India, Pakistan, and possibly others could produce more material for weapons as negotiators spend years trying to resolve thorny differences over verification and other issues.

To leverage action on an FMCT and begin to address the flawed proposal for nuclear assistance to India, Congress and NSG member states should refuse to relax nuclear trade rules with India until it halts production of fissile material for weapons purposes. At the same time, they should urge others to halt fissile material production pending the conclusion of a verifiable FMCT. If they do not, the proposal for nuclear cooperation with India would constitute a dangerous sellout of core nonproliferation goals and could become the catalyst for an Asian nuclear arms race.


Bush Promotes New Nuclear Plan

Wade Boese

The Bush administration hopes emerging nuclear fuel-cycle technologies will help meet U.S. and global energy needs and reduce dangers that civilian nuclear programs might be corrupted for nuclear weapons. But even administration officials indicate that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an initiative to promote such technologies, is by no means assured of success.

In his Jan. 31 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush argued the United States had to break its “addiction” to oil by investing in alternative energy sources. GNEP is the nuclear component of a multi-pronged approach that also includes boosting solar and wind power. The administration is seeking $250 million in seed money for GNEP in its fiscal year 2007 budget request.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman unveiled GNEP Feb. 6. The initiative’s aims, Bodman explained, were to “extract more energy from nuclear fuel, reduce the amount of waste that requires permanent disposal, and greatly reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.” Speaking at the same event, Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell framed the initiative as part of “a nuclear renaissance, which we greatly need.”

GNEP rests on devising new ways of treating spent nuclear fuel so it can be used again and again, a process referred to as recycling, before being discarded as waste. Currently, the United States only runs nuclear fuel through a reactor once before disposing of it.

The United States abandoned commercial fuel recycling in the 1970s because of high costs and concerns about the dangers associ ated with chemical reprocessing, the current method for separating uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for reuse. Because plutonium can be used to build nuclear bombs, Washingtondeclined to embrace an approach that created large quantities of bomb-ready material susceptible to misuse or theft. Despite U.S.apprehensions, France adopted a civilian spent-fuel reprocessing program, and Japan is on the verge of implementing one.

Administration officials envision GNEP as mooting past U.S. concerns by employing new reprocessing approaches, called UREX+ and pyroprocessing, that they 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 ad vanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel.

But the new reprocessing technologies have yet to be proven on an industrial scale, and the new reactors must still be designed. En ergy Department officials seemed to acknowledge the many chal lenges facing GNEP by repeatedly couching it in qualified terms.

Bodman noted, “If we can make GNEP a reality…,” while Sell said, “Ultimately, we hope to be in a position to make a judg ment about the commercial viability of this approach in the coming years.” Sell also added that “the scale of what we are proposing is substantial and the level of [research and develop ment] and demonstration funding that would be required of this country is significant.”

Still, a Feb. 6 Energy Department press release quoted Bodman as declaring, “GNEP brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation.”

The International Aspect

The United States is aiming to get other advanced nuclear powers, such as France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, involved in GNEP. Participating countries would seek to develop new small-scale reactors that would operate their entire lifetime on one load of nuclear fuel, minimizing the risk that the fuel could be used for bomb purposes. GNEP countries would also work to devise new safeguard mechanisms to make it more difficult for nuclear materials and technologies in the civil sector to be di verted to building arms.

If the novel reprocessing approach pans out, Washington sees it as enabling GNEP participants to offer other countries a reliable supply of nuclear fuel and fuel services at an attractive price while limiting proliferation dangers. “We hope to develop an interna tional regime…so that fuel can be leased to a country interested in building a reactor and taking fuel, but then the fuel can be taken back to the fuel cycle country,” Sell explained.

Eligibility for this offer would depend on potential recipients forswearing acquisition of their own reprocessing or uranium-en richment capabilities. Uranium enrichment can be used to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

In February 2004, Bush called for a halt to the spread of reprocessing and enrichment capabilities. (See ACT, March 2004.) Washington , Moscow, and several European capitals are trying to persuade Tehran to give up its fledgling enrichment program. The United States says Iran’s stubborn refusal is evidence of its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Russia and International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei have advanced concepts similar to GNEP intended to stymie the diffusion of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Currently, 15 countries, including Iran, have such capabilities.

At a July 2005 Moscow conference, Kremlin officials floated the possibility of organizing a network of global nuclear-fuel supply centers based in Russia and other advanced nuclear powers, and Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the proposal in January. ElBaradei has advocated establishing a guaranteed nuclear-fuel supply regime that would eventually evolve into multilateral management of all nuclear fuel facilities.

ElBaradei and Putin have said their proposals would be open to any government. Putin said Russia would provide “access without discrimination for all who desire it,” while ElBaradei has recommended a supply regime based on apolitical, objective criteria. The United States has not made similar statements, raising questions as to whether GNEP services would be available to governments not in Washington’s favor.

Sell indicated that reactions to GNEP by other capitals have been mixed. Although saying it had been “enthusiastically received” by some, he also admitted, “[T]here are different perspectives and different angles, and there are many details to be worked out.”

The reaction of U.S. lawmakers has fallen along party lines. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Feb. 9 that the “recycling technologies that are discussed under GNEP are exciting.” Similarly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the initiative Feb. 16 “visionary.” Alternatively, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said the same day that GNEP “has serious problems.” She cited potential costs of up to hundreds of billions of dollars, proliferation dangers, and doubts that recy cling would reduce nuclear waste.

The handling of nuclear waste is politically divisive in the United States, and the GNEP proposal to bring back spent nuclear fuel from foreign countries could prompt more objections to the initiative. Indeed, public opposition has stalled the U.S. government’s plan to open a long-term spent nuclear-fuel and waste repository at Yucca Mountain.



Letters to the Editor

Reprocessing Is Less Risky

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel notwithstanding (“Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?,” ACT, September 2005), new reprocessing technologies can increasingly make plutonium inaccessible for diversion by terrorist groups and by governments and can reinforce the ability of the United States to oppose the spread of current pluto­nium-separation tech­nology to additional countries.

Like it or not, nuclear reactors are destined to play a much larger role in the world’s energy mix. Those among us who are serious about international stability and controlling nuclear weapons must get to understand what modern nuclear technology can and cannot do.

Fetter and von Hippel make a convincing case against cycling plutonium back into today’s reactors. We fully agree, and in fact one of us [George S. Stanford] has published a technical analysis making that very point.

Nonetheless, we have to flag a serious problem. Fetter and von Hippel equate reprocessing with plutonium separation, a blanket association that is no longer valid. Their narrow focus on the drawbacks of current recycling technology—PUREX reprocessing and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in thermal reactors—could be taken to mean that all recycling of reactor fuel is to be deplored. This is definitely not the case.

The expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel. The important point is that the recycling must be into new-generation fast reactors. Current thermal reactors, with or without recycle, can extract no more than a hundredth of the energy in the original ore.

Metal-fueled fast reactors, which Fetter and von Hippel dismiss without serious consideration, are the key.

  • Their fuel cycle is proliferation-resistant since the nature, amount, and disposition of plutonium are limited as outlined below.
  • They can consume plutonium and other long-lived actinides (such as uranium, neptunium, and americium), reducing to less than 500 years the required isolation time for waste in a repository, and postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the need for more repositories.
  • Their fuel can be recycled pyrometallurgically, a procedure that is inherently incapable of separating pure plutonium from used reactor fuel. To make it chemically pure enough to be used for weapons, a proliferator must process it further in a PUREX-type facility.
  • They can extract all the energy, making uranium a power source that can last indefinitely.

The world is already awash in reactor- and weapons-grade plutonium, and the supply is increasing daily in spent fuel from current reactors. Fast reactors with pyroprocessing will increasingly make that plutonium inaccessible for diversion.

  • Fast reactors can be set up to be net consumers of plutonium or to breed plutonium, but that does not give them any special proliferation potential because any reactor can be subverted for the production of weapons-grade plutonium and a fast reactor is no worse than any other. All reactors need safeguards to prevent diversion.
  • They take plutonium out of storage and out of commerce. Once plutonium has entered an integrated fast-reactor/pyroprocessing facility (IFR), none ever needs to come out unless more is wanted to prime new reactors.
  • Diversion by terrorists would be essentially impossible from an IFR system. A Livermore National Laboratory study has shown that, even given successful diversion, the heat generation alone from pyroprocessed fuel would be so intense that a bomb’s high explosive (not the plutonium) would self-detonate or melt. Not even a nation seeking nuclear weapons would waste any time on it.

The key to preventing proliferation during the inevitable worldwide expansion of nuclear power is a concerted effort to amend the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to eliminate the right of each nation to develop its own full-scale fuel cycle. In return, the “nuclear club” needs formally to guarantee fuel supplies and waste disposal at reasonable prices through an international entity such as the International Energy Agency or the International Atomic Energy Agency. The negotiations will not be easy, but because preventing proliferation is in everyone’s interest, they may succeed.

Fetter and von Hippel say that reprocessing would be too expensive, a claim that is true of PUREX and thermal reactors but has two serious problems in the context of pyroprocessing and fast reactors. First, it neglects external costs. The overall cost of energy from a given source depends not only on direct costs, but also on “externalities,” the hard-to-quantify costs of outside effects. Economic comparisons that ignore such costs are unrealistic and misleading. For example, burning coal causes thousands of excess deaths per year in the United States alone. Fissioning uranium in nuclear reactors causes none, nor does it release carbon dioxide. By absorbing such external costs, society subsidizes fossil-fueled power.

The second error is the assumption that, even neglecting externalities, costs are well established. They’re not. At least one external analysis concludes that an IFR-type system would be competitive. By contrast, Fetter and von Hippel quote from a 1996 study by the National Academy of Sciences to the effect that “the excess cost for an S&T [separation and transmutation] disposal system...easily could be more than $100 billion.” But the report included an important caveat right before the passage they quoted: “Assuming the feasibility of pyroprocessing of spent LWR [light-water reactor] fuel, the design information for a commercial-scale reprocessing facility needed to make cost estimates is not available.” Apparently the committee was estimating the cost of a separation and transmutation disposal system other than one involving pyroprocessing, so a higher cost for such a system cannot be assumed at this time.

The energy and dollars needed to implement large-scale deployment of MOX recycle technology would be better spent on wrapping up the development of fast reactors and their fuel cycle, thus achieving ultimate closure of the fuel cycle, an assured energy supply in perpetuity, removal of plutonium from commerce, proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, and optimal utilization of the Yucca Mountain repository.


Gerald E. Marsh is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He was a consultant to the Department of Defense on strategic nuclear technology and policy in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations and served with the U.S. START delegation in Geneva. George S. Stanford is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He is co-author of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats From Cold-War Weaponry (2004).

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel Respond:

We are gratified that Gerald Marsh and George Stanford agree that it makes no sense to use existing commercialized reprocessing technologies to separate plutonium for recycle in light-water reactors. This would be more expensive, present much greater proliferation risks, and have no waste-disposal advantages over the direct disposal of spent fuel. This is an important conclusion because this is the only approach to reprocessing and recycling that could be deployed in the near term.

The technologies that Marsh and Stanford advocate—fast reactors with pyrometallurgical separation and recycling of the minor transuranic isotopes in addition to plutonium—are not commercially proven. Past failed attempts, in which tens of billions of dollars have been spent in efforts to commercialize fast reactors in France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, produced reactors with high costs, questionable safety, and poor reliability.

The technical barriers to full transuranic recycle in fast reactors may be overcome in time, but the economic barriers to their adoption are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they say “[t]he expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel.” Fast reactors can indeed make far more efficient use of uranium, but even with inefficient light-water reactors, the cost of uranium currently constitutes less than 2 percent of the price of nuclear-generated electricity. In a recent article in Nuclear Technology, one of us [Steve Fetter] has estimated that the price of uranium would have to grow by a factor of five to 10 in order to make full transuranic recycling in fast reactors cost effective. There is enough lower-cost uranium to sustain a substantial expansion of nuclear power using current once-through technologies for at least 50 years and probably much longer. By that time, we should have a much better sense of the longer-term role of fission power among our energy options. There is no urgency to develop and deploy fast reactors.

The waste-disposal advantages of full transuranic recycle cited by Marsh and Stanford are overstated. The direct disposal of spent fuel is inexpensive: $0.001 per kilowatt-hour, or less than 2 percent of the cost of electricity. Fast reactors would greatly reduce (but not eliminate) required repository space only if all transuranics are separated and recycled until they are fissioned and if the long-lived fission products were also separated and stored on the surface for several centuries, thereby defeating the main safety advantages of storing spent fuel underground. Admittedly, there are political barriers to expanding geologic waste disposal, but it is by no means obvious that the political barriers to the widespread deployment of fast reactors and associated reprocessing and surface waste-storage facilities would be substantially smaller.

They also exaggerate the potential nonproliferation benefits. One of us [Frank von Hippel] has completed a technical analysis of the nonproliferation aspects of the pyroprocessing technology that has been developed at Argonne National Laboratory. The analysis, soon to be published in Science and Global Security, indicates that the proliferation benefits claimed by Marsh and Stanford are quite short-lived. Unless spent fuel is pyroprocessed and recycled within two years after discharge from the reactor, the penetrating radiation emitted by the minor transuranics and those fission products that remain with the plutonium would not make it so dangerous to handle that it would be self-protecting by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s standards. This exception is irrelevant to the current debate over the reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel, which is on average already about 20 years old.

Moreover, Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they argue that the heat generated by the minor transuranics that remain mixed with plutonium make it unusable in a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the same analysis indicates that this mixture could even be used in a nuclear weapon like that dropped on Nagasaki. In any case, because the radiation dose rate from the mixture is relatively low, the plutonium could easily be chemically separated from the minor transuranics in a glove box.

In summary, despite the continuing enthusiasm of Marsh, Stanford, and some of their Argonne colleagues for the long-term possibilities of fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing, the promotion of those technologies is a diversion from the nearer-term issue we analyzed. Our article focused on the proposal recently agreed to in the November 2005 House-Senate conference on the energy and water appropriations bill that calls for the secretary of energy to submit a detailed plan for recycling by March 31, 2006, with “construction of one or more integrated spent fuel recycling facilities” to begin in fiscal year 2010.

As explained in our article, interim spent-fuel storage would be much less costly and less undermining of U.S. nonproliferation policy. With interim storage, any potential future energy value of the spent fuel will be preserved. There is much more time available to debate the long-term future of nuclear power than there is to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and dispose of the huge quantities of already separated nuclear weapons materials.

Steve Fetter is a professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.

U.S. Proposes Nuclear Fuel Safety Net

Wade Boese

The United States recently announced it will establish a nuclear fuel reserve for countries that forgo the ability to make their own nuclear fuel. This reserve would serve as a backup source of nuclear fuel for such countries if their regular supply channels are interrupted.

Reining in fuel production capabilities has become a top priority of U.S. policymakers because such materials also can be used to make fissile material—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—for nuclear weapons.

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman unveiled the outlines of the nascent U.S. proposal Sept. 26 in videotaped remarks to the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA promotes the use of nuclear technologies and materials for peaceful purposes and seeks to deter or detect the illicit use of civilian nuclear programs for building nuclear weapons. The General Conference is the annual budget and policy decision-making meeting of IAEA members, now numbering 138 states.

Bodman told the conference that the Bush administration “firmly believes that all responsible nations should have access to peaceful uses of the atom.” At the same time, Washington, other Western capitals, and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei have encouraged countries to forgo certain nuclear technologies that can be used in producing both energy and weapons, specifically uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. But some countries, such as Iran, have expressed unease or outright opposition to this approach because they contend it would deny them technologies to which they have a right and leave them at the mercy of outside suppliers.

To ameliorate this concern, Bodman said the United States would make available nuclear fuel “for an IAEA-verifiable assured supply arrangement.” He offered scant details but asserted, “Through this arrangement, I believe we can advance our common goals of fighting proliferation while expanding the use of nuclear power around the globe.”

U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Ambassador Gregory Schulte partially fleshed out the U.S. proposal in a Sept. 28 letter to ElBaradei. Schulte said the United States intends to blend down 17 excess metric tons of HEU into low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make weapons. The lower-grade uranium is the primary fuel for nuclear reactors.

The U.S. ambassador indicated the blended-down uranium would be available should a country experience a “disruption in supply” of its nuclear fuel. Only states that “forego enrichment and reprocessing” would be eligible to receive this reserve fuel, he wrote. Bodman’s reference to “responsible nations” suggests the United States might also employ additional criteria to prevent states that it does not trust, such as Iran and North Korea, from obtaining fuel from this U.S. reserve.

Noting that blending down HEU is “an extensive and time-consuming process,” Schulte estimated that “[w]e anticipate that this fuel will become available in 2009.” A U.S. government spokesperson told Arms Control Today Oct. 18 that, when completed, the blend-down process would yield approximately 10 nuclear reactor reloads.

The U.S. government has provided no additional information on how the fuel reserve would function. Left unclear is whether a recipient would be charged for the fuel, how the fuel would be transported, and how the resultant spent fuel would be handled. In his letter, Schulte stated, “Details concerning this initiative are still being finalized.”

The U.S. proposal extends a policy first enunciated by President George W. Bush in a February 2004 speech on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2004.) The president made the case that nuclear suppliers needed to “ensure that states have reliable access at reasonable cost to fuel for civilian reactors” so they do not feel compelled to acquire their own uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. “Enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” Bush declared.

ElBaradei has argued similarly and proposed a five-year moratorium on the construction of new plants for these activities. His call has gone unheeded, but the Group of Eight—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—agreed in July to extend for another year a moratorium on any new exports of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. (See ACT, September 2005.)

The IAEA director-general also convened an experts group to explore multilateral ways of producing and providing nuclear fuel. The group released its findings in February (see ACT, March 2005), laying out five alternative approaches, but countries have not reached agreement on any particular one.

Still, ElBaradei continues to press states on the matter. At an Oct. 5 event in Moscow, he argued that one of the more “interesting and challenging projects” facing the world is developing “a regime by which we can provide assurance of supply to all countries, subject to nonproliferation criteria, to be able to have reactor technology, fuel technology, and in return, accept not to develop their own independent fuel cycle [i.e., enrichment and reprocessing capabilities].” He concluded, “I think this will be a leap of faith in protecting ourselves.”

The recent U.S. proposal differs in many respects to ElBaradei’s concept. For example, the United States would retain ownership of the fuel reserve rather than placing it under multilateral control. Congress could then intervene and pass laws restricting how the fuel reserve would be operated. Most importantly, the U.S. proposal is fixed on providing “reliable access” to fuel, whereas ElBaradei is looking to give states that meet an apolitical set of nonproliferation criteria an “assurance” of supply. The latter is less subjective and unacceptable to the United States.


Czech Uranium Removed

William Huntington

The Department of Energy’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) program repatriated 14 kilograms of Soviet-supplied highly enriched uranium (HEU) from a Prague research reactor to a “secure” facility in Russia without incident on Sept. 27. The operation was part of an ongoing U.S.-Russian effort to remove weapons-grade fuel from vulnerable Soviet-era research reactors around the world.

The secret, two-day mission secured unused HEU fuel assemblies from the VR-1 Sparrow reactor on the campus of Czech Technical University. An International Atomic Energy Agency team measured the mass and enrichment level of the fuel and placed special security seals over the large steel transfer casks. Under the cover of darkness, a Czech security team escorted the shipment to the airport where the HEU was officially handed over to Russian authorities.

The HEU was flown to Dimitrovgrad, Russia, where it will be blended down to low-enriched uranium (LEU) suitable for use in reactors but not nuclear weapons.

The VR-1 Sparrow reactor has recently come back online following its conversion to the use of LEU fuel, marking the first full conversion under a joint U.S.-Russian program to convert HEU-fueled research reactors to LEU use.

According to a National Nuclear Security Administration press release, the GTRI program has repatriated 122 kilograms of fresh HEU to Russia in eight shipments. With the Sept. 27 transfer, the second from the Czech Republic, all of that country’s HEU designated for repatriation has been removed.

In Kazakhstan, state-owned uranium producer Kazatomprom and the nonprofit organization Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) completed the blenddown of 2,900 kilograms of uranium reactor fuel. The fresh fuel, enriched up to 26 percent, was created for use in the BN-350 fast-breeder reactor at Aktau, Kazakhstan.


Brazilian Regulator Denies Uranium Claims

William Huntington

Odair Gonçalves, president of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), told Arms Control Today Sept. 28 that reports that a foreign source had once supplied Brazil with uranium enriched to the point that it could fuel a nuclear bomb were inaccurate.

In an interview with Brazil’s Globo TV in August, a former CNEN president, José Luiz Santana, claimed that the military had acquired enriched uranium from a foreign source and had hoped to test a nuclear device in September 1990. The military program only ended, Santana maintained, when CNEN managed to gain control over the enriched uranium in August 1990, seven months into his tenure as president of the agency.

But Gonçalves told Arms Control Today that Brazil never possessed weapons-grade material. He suggested that Santana had instead been talking about an imported stock of almost 20-percent enriched uranium. Gonçalves could not say from where this stock of enriched uranium had been imported, but did say that the material was known to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was under safeguards. Although weapons-grade uranium is generally considered to be at least 90 percent enriched, crude nuclear weapons can be fashioned from somewhat lower-grade uranium.

Santana’s claims came as Brazil’s one-time nuclear weapons ambitions again became the subject of speculation after comments made by former Brazilian President José Sarney in August. Sarney, whose entrance into office in 1985 ended a 19-year-old military government, said that he terminated a secret nuclear weapons program with his ascension to power. Nonproliferation experts have long considered the existence of such a program indisputable, but Sarney’s comments are the first confirmation to come from a senior Brazilian source. Later in August, Santana told Globo TV that it was not until 1990 that the nuclear weapons program was definitively cancelled.

Saying that no documentation can be found within CNEN confirming that a nuclear weapons program ever existed, Gonçalves acknowledged that the secrecy imposed by the former military government could prevent such conclusive proof from ever coming to light. However, Gonçalves contended that had such a program ever existed, it could not have continued past the adoption of the 1988 constitution, which contains a clause specifically outlawing nonpeaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“We can’t guarantee anything from the old government,” Gonçalves said. “Even our constitution was different. But since 1988, it’s possible to say that there’s nothing going on.” Brazil did not sign or ratify the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) until 1998, although by 1994 it had accepted international scrutiny of its nuclear activities by the Argentine-Brazilian Accounting and Control Commission.

Asked about the possibility that Brazil might sign a version of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, Gonçalves said that Brazil had been waiting to see the outcome of the May 2005 NPT Review Conference before making a decision. Additional protocols give the IAEA added inspection authority, including the ability to inspect undeclared nuclear facilities, and to date, Brazil has resisted signing one. Now that the review conference has passed, Gonçalves said, Brasilia is studying the issue anew. More than a year ago, Brazilian Ambassador to the United States Roberto Abdenur made a statement similarly indicating that Brasilia is not closed to the idea of an additional protocol. (See ACT, June 2004.)

Still, Gonçalves suggested that Brazil, in the context of debating an additional protocol, may raise questions about other countries’ compliance with their commitments under the NPT. In particular, he suggested Brazil would like to see the five NPT acknowledged nuclear-weapon states ( China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) meet their obligation to make good-faith efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

Brazil’s uranium-enrichment facility under construction at Resende has generated international concern, as it is the first centrifuge facility to come online since the revelations surrounding a black-market enrichment technology network headed by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan and Iran’s pursuit of similar technology. Confirming that the first of four centrifuge cascade modules at Resende is now operational, Gonçalves said that Brazil could complete construction on the remaining three modules in seven years if the project is fully funded. At full capacity, Gonçalves stated that Resende would produce half of the fuel necessary for Brazil’s two nuclear power plants.

Downplaying concerns to the contrary, Gonçalves also maintained that Resende could not be used to produce fuel for the navy’s nuclear propulsion program because the facility is only licensed to enrich uranium to 5 percent, while the submarine reactors require 18-19 percent enriched fuel.

Last year, the Brazilian National Energy Policy Council was commissioned by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to issue recommendations on the future of Brazil’s nuclear energy program. Gonçalves told Arms Control Today that Brazil has not yet made a final decision on the fate of Angra-3, its planned new nuclear reactor. Some outside experts believe that the Resende facility will not be commercially viable without the construction of Angra-3 or the export of enriched uranium fuel abroad.

But Gonçalves suggested that more than economic considerations were at play. “It depends what you call commercially viable,” Gonçalves said. “Because when you are speaking about energy, to have some complete cycle, a closed cycle, completely independent from other suppliers and so on, could be very important.”

Click here for a complete transcript of the interview.


U.S. Civilian Reactor Produces Tritium

Ron Gurantz

Departing from a long-standing U.S. tradition of separating civilian and military nuclear activities, Washington transferred tritium produced in a commercial nuclear reactor in late August to a Department of Energy facility in South Carolina for eventual use in nuclear weapons.

Tritium is a radioactive gas used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons and is a necessary component of U.S. nuclear weapons. It has a half-life of roughly a dozen years, so it must be replenished and replaced regularly. However, the United States has not produced new tritium since 1988, when the Energy Department reactors in Savannah River, South Carolina, were shut down for safety reasons. Since then, the United States has been recycling the gas from nuclear weapons dismantled under START I in order to meet current requirements.

The Energy Department has long contended that it would need to find a new production source for tritium by this year to maintain the current arsenal at the START I level and maintain a five-year reserve supply. In 1998, following an extensive review of options, the Energy Department announced that it would adopt the lowest-cost option of producing tritium in a commercial plant in Watts Bar, Tennessee. (See ACT, November/December 1998.) Some critics have claimed that further production of tritium is not needed because of projected future cuts in the U.S. arsenal, but the government does not publicly release data that would allow this question to be answered by outside experts.

In 2003, 240 rods were inserted into the Watts Bar reactor. For the next 18 months, the rods were irradiated, converting the lithium contained within into tritium. The rods were removed in April, cooled, and transported to Savannah River for storage. The tritium is to be extracted from the rods at Savannah River’s $506 million Tritium Extraction Facility, slated to become operational in 2007, at which point the gas will be used to support the nuclear weapons arsenal. The Tennessee Valley Authority continues to produce tritium at Watts Bar, having inserted an additional 240 rods into the reactor after the first round was extracted in April.

The production of tritium at Watts Bar challenges the so-called no-dual-use policy, the established practice of separating civilian and military nuclear operations, which has been U.S. policy since the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. Critics charge that violating this separation undermines U.S. nonproliferation policy by encouraging other countries to use their commercial reactors for weapons purposes. Indeed, one of the key points of a recent U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement was that New Delhi agreed to separate the reactors it used for power production from those it uses for weapons purposes.

Still, no law or regulation directly prohibits the civilian production of tritium for military use. Although the 1983 Hart-Simpson amendment to the Atomic Energy Act expressly prohibits the civilian production of “special nuclear material,” such as uranium-233 and plutonium, tritium does not meet that classification because it is not a fissile material capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction.


Japan's Plutonium Reprocessing Dilemma

Shinichi Ogawa and Michael Schiffer

Ever since it was attacked with nuclear weapons six decades ago, Japan has been at the forefront of international nonproliferation efforts. Yet, as the world has focused recently on the dangers posed by some elements of the civilian nuclear power industry, Japan has found itself in the crosshairs of proliferation concerns.

The international community has focused particularly on Japan’s planned plutonium reprocessing facility in Rokkasho-mura, which is scheduled to begin operating as early as July 2006. It would be the first active, civilian reprocessing facility in a non-nuclear-weapon state. It would also be one of the first and largest of such facilities to come online since President George W. Bush and Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), called for limits on the construction of new plutonium reprocessing or uranium-enrichment facilities. These facilities can be used to develop nuclear fuel for civilian nuclear plants but also can provide the essential fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Those who favor limiting the spread of such facilities argue that the Rokkasho facility should be sacrificed for the greater good of nonproliferation and the prevention of a risky “virtual nuclear arms race.” Japanese officials have in essence taken another tack in their attempt to square their quest for a more complete nuclear fuel cycle with their desire to play a constructive nonproliferation role. Japan’s long and proud nonproliferation record, they say, should become the effective standard against which to judge other countries that want such facilities.

Japan’s Nonproliferation Policy

Soon after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, Japan decided not to develop or to possess nuclear weapons. In 1955 it adopted the Atomic Energy Basic Law, which limits the use of nuclear energy to nonmilitary areas. This approach was reconfirmed in 1967, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared the so-called three non-nuclear principles in the Diet: Japan would not possess, manufacture, or introduce nuclear weapons.[1]

When Japan signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, the Sato cabinet specified three conditions that would have to be met for Japanese ratification: concrete steps toward disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states; clear protection of the security interests of non-nuclear-weapon states; and a fair and equal system of international safeguards.

Although the third condition was met through a new safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1975, Japan compromised on the other two conditions, settling for a decision to increase its own nuclear disarmament efforts in lieu of “concrete” measures taken by the nuclear-weapon states and calling for a reconfirmation of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and U.S.-Japanese security relationship as a substitute for broader measures to guarantee the security of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Since then, Japan has backed incremental disarmament efforts while continuing to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Japanese officials seem to have believed that gradual disarmament would not endanger the U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as U.S. nuclear forces are dominant and other nuclear-weapon states reduce their forces in parallel with the United States.[2]

Japan fully supports the nonproliferation regime. For example, Japan has helped lead international efforts to try and bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force. It also has provided technical assistance to developing countries to support the development of the International Monitoring System for verifying compliance with the CTBT.

In the late 1990s, Japan became the first state in possession of civilian nuclear power reactors to sign and put into effect an IAEA additional protocol. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to broaden its safeguards and inspections so as to better ensure that states do not have undeclared facilities and activities that could be engaged in military work.

Since September 2004, Japan’s model behavior has made it the test case for the IAEA’s large-scale implementation of integrated safeguards, which are nonredundant and streamlined inspection activities with more short-notice and challenge inspections. Japan is estimated to be the subject of about 20 percent to 30 percent of the IAEA’s inspection activities.[3]

Japan also has bilateral cooperative agreements on peaceful uses of nuclear energy with Australia, Canada, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under these agreements, Japan has agreed to accept various additional nonproliferation conditions and controls, such as placing the movement and handling of its plutonium under close scrutiny.[4] It is a member in good standing of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 45-member group of states that have voluntarily agreed to coordinate their export controls governing transfers of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Some analysts have suggested there are circumstances that may well merit Japanese reconsideration of its own non-nuclear status: if North Korea were to test its own nuclear weapon and unalterably pull out of the six-party talks, for example, or if the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella deteriorated. Yet, Japanese domestic political sentiment and interests both mitigate any lessening of Tokyo’s commitment to nonproliferation absent a revolutionary change in the nature and structure of the balance of the regional or global security order.

Japan further underscored its commitment to disarmament in a resolution it tabled last year in the UN General Assembly that calls on states to pursue the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The resolution, which prescribes 25 steps ranging from early entry into force of the CTBT to deep reductions by Russia and the United States in their strategic nuclear arsenals, was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 4, 2004, by a 165-3 vote.

Japan’s Energy Dilemma

Nonetheless, Japan also is deeply committed to civilian nuclear power. With virtually no indigenous energy supplies, Tokyo views nuclear power as an affordable, secure, and environmentally attractive energy source. Despite its status as one of the world’s great economic powers, many Japanese policymakers as well as the Japanese public share a deep sense of anxiety that Japan’s position in the world remains tenuous at best. With a lack of natural resources and little strategic depth, energy independence and security has been an animating feature of Japanese “grand strategy” for well more than a century. This sensitivity is even more acute in the context of current questions about the long-term viability of energy alternatives. This would include importing oil from the volatile Middle East at a time when Japan sees its East Asian rival, China, seeking to lock up the supply.

Currently, 53 nuclear power plants are operating in Japan, raising Japan’s self-sufficiency in primary energy supply from an estimated 4 percent to 20 percent.[5]

(By comparison, Germany stands at 25 percent; the United States at 66 percent, and the United Kingdom at 102 percent self-sufficiency.)

Seeking greater self-sufficiency and greater energy security, successive Japanese governments have sought to provide their own nuclear fuel. Initial plans call for utilizing reprocessed plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in the form of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Ultimately, Tokyo would like to employ fast-breeder reactors that would be at least 100 times more efficient in the amount of uranium they use than a once-through system that directly disposes of spent fuel.[6]

In 1993, Japan started constructing the Rokkasho-mura plant, its first commercial reprocessing facility, to process spent fuel that it was shipping to France and the United Kingdom. When completed, the plant will able to process about 800 tons of spent fuel annually, which is close to the total spent fuel reprocessed over the past 30 years.[7] The Rokkasho-mura facility is slated to use a unique reprocessing process intended to limit the proliferation danger caused by stockpiles of separated plutonium. Rather than separating the plutonium in one plant and then combining the plutonium with uranium in another plant, Rokkasho-mura would combine these two steps into a process in which MOX would be created under a single roof.

Needless to say, this reprocessing procedure is not without dangers because it is easy to separate out the plutonium from the MOX. Critics point to other problems as well, one being the cost. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency estimates that it is 2.3 percent less expensive to generate electricity from nuclear fuel that is then disposed of directly than from employing a “closed” nuclear fuel cycle using spent fuel reprocessing.[8] That is, using MOX fuel is far more expensive than using fresh uranium fuel.[9] According to an analysis by experts Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel of a draft study by Japan’s New Nuclear Planning Council, the total extra cost for reprocessing 32,000 tons of Japan’s spent fuel and recycling the plutonium would be about $60 billion. In addition, during construction the capital costs at Rokkasho-mura have more than tripled to about $20 billion.[10]

Critics of Rokkasho-mura also insist that reprocessing would do little to alleviate certain aspects of Japan’s spent fuel problem, which represents a potential political headache for the Japanese government.[11]

Nonetheless, advocates of Rokkasho-mura argue that reprocessing provides a practical means for dealing with the spent nuclear fuel that is piling up in Japan and will soon exceed available storage space. They claim, for example, that reprocessing reduces by half the amount of highly radioactive waste that must be disposed of.[12] Although they acknowledge that reprocessing may prove costly compared to direct disposal, they contend that it is an efficient use of energy resources that offers energy security without worsening global warming.

Last November, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission announced that Japan would reprocess spent nuclear fuel to the maximum of its reprocessing capability and store the remaining spent fuel, if any, in the interim storage sites. In 2010 the commission will re-examine how to dispose of the remaining spent fuel, taking into account the performance of Rokkasho-mura, progress in the research and development of fast-breeder reactor and other advanced reprocessing technologies, and international conditions concerning nuclear nonproliferation.[13]

The commission has a stated goal of making fast-breeder technology fit for practical use by 2015.

Japan’s nuclear fuel-cycle program has made significant progress, but technical and political hurdles remain. The program has been hampered by an accident with a prototype fast-breeder reactor and the lingering anxiety of residents near the site. Yet, Tokyo appears determined to pursue a full-scale independent nuclear fuel cycle, believing it will enhance Japan’s energy security, enable efficient use of energy resources, and contribute to Japan’s overall efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Japan’s Nuclear Energy Program and the NPT

Still, critics argue that Japan’s pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle poses a serious dilemma to global nuclear proliferation efforts. This is because production of reactor-level nuclear materials and weapons-grade nuclear materials follow virtually identical processes. North Korea took advantage of this fact to develop the capability to produce weapons-grade fissile materials under the guise of a civilian nuclear power program; many fear that Iran will soon do so as well. India, Israel, and Pakistan followed similar paths in earlier years.

Therefore, despite all evidence of good intentions, Japan’s policy may be setting a poor precedent. Its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle may legitimize the actions of other countries to pursue similar technologies and ultimately attain “breakout” capability. They too may seek to build up similarly robust civilian energy programs that, at the flip of the switch, could be militarized.

Indeed, Iran has pointed to the Japanese example on several occasions, arguing, as Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi did in New York this past May, that it is wrong to limit “access to peaceful nuclear technology to an exclusive club of technologically advanced states under the pretext of nonproliferation.”[14]

Finally, although Japan has adopted domestic laws to address this issue, there is the risk that as Japan brings its own nuclear fuel cycle fully online the resultant growth of its fissile material stockpiles could be vulnerable to theft or diversion, creating a significant proliferation risk. With access to fissile material widely regarded as the main technical hurdle facing any country or group that wants to construct a bomb, this is not an insignificant problem.

To cope with such dilemmas, Bush in February 2004 laid out a vision for the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime that included proposed new restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing plants. In particular, he asked the NSG to ban the provision of reprocessing or uranium-enrichment capabilities to any state that does not possess full-scale facilities already. Bush also proposed to make signing an additional protocol with the IAEA a condition for states seeking imports for their civilian nuclear programs. In addition, he proposed that states that renounce enrichment and processing have reliable access to fuel for civilian reactors.

The Bush approach addresses some of the persistent weaknesses of the current nonproliferation regime, but it also has significant drawbacks. First, as the secret global network headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan showed, even some governments within the NSG have trouble stopping clandestine supplier networks. Second, many developing countries argue that the Bush approach compounds the discriminatory elements of the current nonproliferation regime. These non-nuclear-weapon states also complain that Bush does nothing to address one of their core complaints, that the nuclear-weapons states, and the United States in particular, are not doing enough to live up to their obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

Bush’s policy also demonstrates a lukewarm attitude toward international institutions that presents a further dilemma for Japanese diplomats. By going through the NSG, Bush has shunted aside broader international institutions or treaties. This comes at a difficult time for Japan, which wants to demonstrate its bona fides in this area as it is currently seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Still, Japan has voiced its support for a Group of Eight action plan approved at July’s Gleneagles summit that endorsed a one-year pause in inaugurating new enrichment and reprocessing facilities.[15]

ElBaradei has put forward a different approach to dealing with fuel cycle issues that relies on greater involvement with international institutions. Like Bush’s proposal, it calls for restrictions on the ability of non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire enrichment or reprocessing technology. Yet, the core of the ElBaradei approach is to establish international mechanisms that would prepare and provide nuclear fuel on universal, nondiscriminatory grounds.[16]

Thus, ElBaradei’s proposal places Japan’s plans for an independent nuclear fuel cycle in jeopardy. Needless to say, it is not popular among senior Japanese officials. In private comments, they say that such a mechanism would undermine their plans while doing little to punish countries with poor nonproliferation records. Further, they claim that a non-nuclear-weapon state that wants nuclear weapons will simply choose not to rely on international mechanisms, and the international community simply does not have any powerful means to force such a state to comply.

Do As We Do…

Therefore, Japan finds itself in something of a quandary. It is an ardent proponent of the nonproliferation regime and seeks a high profile as a pillar of the international community. However, its own civilian nuclear program appears to some to be contributing to the very stress that threatens to pull the nonproliferation regime apart.

Japan wants to resolve this dilemma by drawing on the best elements of the Bush and ElBaradei proposals to drive a subtle and modest conceptual shift in the nonproliferation regime, seeking to define, for the first time, what it means for a state to be “in conformity” with its obligations to the NPT and, from that, to set in place “objective” behavioral benchmarks that can be universally applied and by which states would have access to peaceful nuclear technology. Naturally enough, this approach serves Japan’s dual interests, promoting nonproliferation while preventing changes to its civilian nuclear power program.

Although its efforts have been far from explicit, this implicit doctrine starts with the model of Japan’s own nonproliferation behavior and commitments. Japanese officials are quick to point to Tokyo’s three-decade-long record of transparency and compliance with international norms and standards as an essential difference between Japan and Iran or other states with questionable nuclear ambitions.

Japan’s current push, then, is to create effective mechanisms that allow for distinguishing between good and bad actors and, in so doing, create a behaviorally based regime. Thus, as Ambassador Yoshiki Mine argued in introducing Japan’s working paper at the once-every-five-years NPT review conference in May:

[P]eaceful uses of nuclear energy by a non-nuclear-weapon state that carries out nuclear activities with the confidence of the international community by faithfully fulfilling its NPT obligations and by ensuring high transparency of its nuclear activities should not be unduly affected.[17]


Any program that meets these criteria, including verification, safeguards, the physical protection of fissile material, and effective measures to prevent illicit trafficking, would be acceptable.


…And Also As We Ask

In addition to seeking to promote its own behavior as a model, there are several additional elements of Japanese policy that seek to reconcile the Bush and ElBaradei proposals.

Japan’s top priority in this respect is to work with the NSG to develop “objective criteria” to measure compliance with nonproliferation obligations, including adherence to the Model Additional Protocol and strict export controls. The Japanese proposals aim to capture both state actions and those of commercial enterprises. They also seek to enforce NSG standards that require IAEA monitoring of all of the buyer state’s nuclear facilities as a condition for supplying sensitive materials and technologies.

Second, Japan is placing greater emphasis on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in East Asia. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently launched efforts to work bilaterally with other Asian nations to create export control systems and to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a multilateral basis to develop a regional legal system of export controls, including lists of regulated and dual-use items. This initiative also includes making Japanese experts available for consultations and seminars and seeking to work with commercial enterprises in the region. Earlier this year, Japan hosted the second set of Asian Senior Level Talks on Non-Proliferation in an effort to create an ongoing, multilateral regional forum where states of the region can develop cooperative nonproliferation practices.

Third, Japan is seeking to persuade as many NPT parties as possible to sign an additional protocol. Japanese officials view these protocols as the most practical tool at hand to prevent nuclear materials from being diverted to weapon-grade materials production and have made vigorous efforts to universalize them. In 2002, for example, Japan, in cooperation with the IAEA, hosted the International Conference on Wider Adherence to Strengthened IAEA Safeguards. Attended by 82 participants representing 36 countries, the conference built on the results of earlier regional efforts to encourage ratification of such protocols.

Fourth, to seek to address criticism that the nuclear-weapon states are not living up to their disarmament obligations, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura stated in New York that Japan remains committed to a process by which “nuclear disarmament measures must be implemented incrementally,” including negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). Japan regards such a treaty not only as a substantial measure for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but also as an important tool to alleviate the discriminatory nature of the NPT. In the meantime, it supports a moratorium on the production of fissile material for weapons use until an FMCT is in force.


In sum, Japan argues that its good behavior should merit a high degree of latitude to pursue nuclear energy, even including the fuel cycle and, moreover, that its approach can serve as a model for reinvigorating the NPT. To be sure, there are clear risks that Japan’s position may undermine the nonproliferation system. In the context of a system that is already badly compromised and in danger of failure, however, there is also a strong argument to be made that these risks may well be offset by the gains in transparency, verification, safety, and security that extending Japan’s model may bring to the NPT.

Indeed, given the low technical barriers to acquiring sensitive technology and the increasing unwillingness of non-nuclear-weapon states to accept further restrictions on their activities, the Japanese approach would seem to merit due consideration as an effort to rethink and reinvigorate the NPT and place it on a sustainable footing. By allowing the pursuit of nuclear energy for those who wish to pursue it, but only in the context of full operational transparency and a demonstrated long-term commitment to nonproliferation norms and standards, this approach offers a possible solution to the key question of breakout capability. It is only in clearly and transparently repudiating nuclear weapons and demonstrating that renunciation through consistent verifiable good behavior over time that nuclear technology should be gained.


Shinichi Ogawa is director of the research department of Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and Michael Schiffer is an international affairs fellow in Japan (Hitachi Fellow) of the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies. The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the authors only and do not reflect the positions of the National Institute for Defense Studies or the Council on Foreign Relations.


1. Asahi Shimbun, December 11, 1967.

2. Japan’s Security Council and the cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in December 2004 approved “National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2005 and After” reconfirming this approach, stating that “Japan continues to rely on the nuclear deterrent provided by the United States, while at the same time playing an active role in taking realistic step-by-step measures for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.”

3. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, “Power Line: Japan’s Commitment to the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy,” Vol. 19 (February 2003).

4. Japan’s obligations to keep the movement of plutonium secure under tight surveillance are detailed in its bilateral nuclear agreements with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

5. Shunsuke Kondo, “Current Status of Development and Utilization of Nuclear Energy in Japan,” Presentation at the 13th International Conference on Nuclear Engineering, Beijing, May 17, 2005.

6. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “White Paper on Nuclear Energy 2003 (Summary),” p. 14.

7. Genshiryoku Iinkai, ed., Genshiryoku Hakusho: Heisei 16 Nen [White paper on nuclear energy 2004] (Tokyo: National Printing Bureau, March 2005), p. 134 (author’s translation).

8. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “White Paper on Nuclear Energy 2003 (Summary),” p. 14.

9. Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel, “Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, pp. 6-12.

10. Ibid.

11. Fetter and von Hippel note that “reprocessing and recycling as currently practiced in France and planned in Japan do not reduce the amount of repository area required for the disposal of radioactive wastes.” Ibid.

12. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, “Japan’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Program,” February 2003 (fact sheet).

13. Atomic Energy Commission of Japan, “Interim Report on Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 12, 2004 (author’s translation).

14. Islamic Republic News Agency, “Kharrazi Addresses NPT Review Confab,” May 4, 2005.

15. Wade Boese, “No Consensus on Nuclear Supply Rules,” Arms Control Today, September 2005, p. 41.

16. For a set of five multilateral nuclear approaches proposed by an international experts group appointed by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, see Miles A. Pomper, “Fuel Cycle Recommendations,” Arms Control Today, March 2005, p. 9.

17. Yoshiki Mine, Statement at the Plenary Meeting of the NPT Review Conference, May 17, 2005.


Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth The Risk?

Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel

Nearly three decades ago, the United States swore off the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel because it cost too much and put separated plutonium into circulation. Now, some in Congress want to launch a massive program to reprocess the spent fuel that has accumulated at U.S. power plants.

In May, the House endorsed report language calling on the Department of Energy to prepare “an integrated spent fuel recycling plan for implementation beginning in fiscal year 2007, including…reprocessing, preparation of mixed oxide fuel, vitrification of high level waste products, and temporary process storage.”[1]

Supporters, led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, say the need is imminent. They point out that, in the absence of reprocessing, the amount of spent fuel discharged by U.S. power reactors will soon exceed the legislated storage capacity of the repository being built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Moreover, Hobson has been persuaded that the Energy Department has developed “new reprocessing technologies that have the potential to minimize the…streams of radioactive waste products and also eliminate the presence of separated plutonium.”[2]

In fact, reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository, and there is no urgent need for additional repository capacity. Further, the new reprocessing technologies being examined by the Energy Department, if adopted, would make huge additional quantities of plutonium accessible for diversion by terrorist groups and would undercut the ability of the United States to oppose the spread of plutonium-separation technology to additional countries. Reprocessing also would be very expensive, increasing the costs of nuclear power in the United States by billions of dollars a year. Yet, the House vote took place without hearings being held. Given the high stakes involved, Congress owes the American people the opportunity for an open and informed debate on the issues involved.

Evolution of U.S. Spent Fuel Disposal Policy

Reprocessing is the generic term for the chemical processing of spent nuclear fuel. The method currently used is the PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) process, which was originally developed by the United States in the early 1950s to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons. The spent fuel assemblies are chopped into pieces, the fuel is dissolved in nitric acid, and organic solvents are used to separate the plutonium and uranium from the fission products (such as cesium-137 and strontium-90) and minor transuranic elements (neptunium, americium, and curium). The plutonium and uranium are then separated from each other and purified for use in fresh reactor fuel. The fission products and minor transuranics are mixed into glass and stored in a surface facility pending the availability of an underground repository.

Commercial reprocessing programs originated in the 1960s and 1970s when power reactor operators worldwide expected that plutonium would be needed to make start-up fuel for plutonium breeder reactors. These reactors would then fuel themselves and other reactors with the plutonium that reactors produce by transmuting the abundant non-chain-reacting uranium-238 isotope. It was believed that production of nuclear energy based on the much less abundant chain-reacting uranium-235 isotope would increase so rapidly that the world’s high-grade uranium ores would quickly be depleted, making a transition to the more uranium-efficient breeder reactors economical.

This expectation, however, was wrong, as U.S. and world nuclear capacity reached a plateau at one-tenth the level that had been projected for the year 2000, huge deposits of high-grade uranium ore were discovered in Australia and Canada, and both breeder reactors and reprocessing were found to be much more costly than had been expected.

Before these errors were generally recognized, reconsideration of U.S. reprocessing policy was triggered by India’s “peaceful” nuclear explosion in 1974. The Indian nuclear device had been made using plutonium extracted from spent fuel using reprocessing technology provided by the United States.

The Ford administration reacted by opposing any further export of reprocessing technology, and the Carter administration put a hold on the licensing of commercial reprocessing facilities in the United States. The Reagan administration lifted the hold on U.S. reprocessing, but by then, U.S. reactor operators had realized how costly breeder reactors and reprocessing would be and had lost interest. The only commercial reprocessing facility to operate in the United States, at West Valley, New York, had closed in 1972 after a few years of troubled operation. The site is still the target of an ongoing, multibillion-dollar, government-funded radioactive waste cleanup project. Two other commercial reprocessing plants, at Morris, Illinois, and at Barnwell, South Carolina, were built but never operated.

Given that spent fuel had become a waste and not a resource, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982. In exchange for a modest tax of $0.001 per kilowatt-hour (about 2 percent of the wholesale cost of nuclear-generated electricity), the Energy Department would arrange for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel in geological repositories. In 1987, Congress specified that the first repository would be sited under Yucca Mountain. To make clear that the burden would not be Nevada’s alone, however, the amount of commercial spent fuel that could be placed in Yucca Mountain was limited to 63,000 tons “until such a time as a second repository is in operation.” [3] U.S. reactors will have discharged this amount of spent fuel by 2008. The NWPA requires the secretary of energy to “report to the president and to Congress on or after January 1, 2007, but not later than January 1, 2010, on the need for a second repository.” [4]

Given the widespread public abhorrence of radioactive waste, neither the Energy Department nor Congress has any appetite to look for a second repository site. Nor, given recent legal reverses in the Energy Department’s battle with Nevada over the licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository, do they seem interested in trying to raise the legislated limit on the amount of spent fuel that can be stored there. This has created the atmosphere of crisis that inspired Hobson to propose reprocessing spent fuel and recycling the uranium and plutonium it contains as a way out.

Yet, if the public and Congress understood the trade-offs being proposed, they would be much more frightened of the near-term dangers of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation that come with plutonium separation than of the very-long-term (hundreds to thousands of centuries) danger of local, radioactive groundwater pollution that is the focus of the licensing battle over Yucca Mountain. It is important to devise the best possible long-term solution for the radioactive waste problem, but the near-term security, economic, and environmental costs of reprocessing and recycling must not be ignored.

Fortunately, there is plenty of time to look before we leap. As the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs recently pointed out:

Even though Yucca Mountain may be delayed considerably, interim storage of spent fuel in dry casks, either at current reactor sites, or in a few regional facilities, or at a single national facility, is safe and affordable for a period of at least 50 years. Further, any spent fuel that would be emplaced at Yucca Mountain would remain available for reprocessing for many decades.… There is no urgent need for the [ United States] to initiate reprocessing or to develop additional national repositories.[5]


The Costs of Reprocessing and Recycling

There is widespread agreement in the United States and abroad that reprocessing and recycling is significantly more expensive than storing spent fuel in an underground repository and buying fresh low-enriched uranium (LEU). This is because reprocessing is an expensive process and also because fabricating mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel containing the recovered plutonium mixed with depleted uranium is more expensive than buying the alternative, fresh LEU fuel.

Thus far, the only country to implement a comprehensive reprocessing and recycling program is France. However, in 2000, the French government concluded that even with the initial costs of its reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication plants paid for, if France were to stop reprocessing in 2010, it would save $4-5 billion over the remaining life-time of its current fleet of power reactors.[6]

A study by Japan’s New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council recently estimated that the total extra cost for reprocessing 32,000 tons of Japan’s spent fuel (about half as much as U.S. reactors have discharged thus far) and recycling the plutonium would be about $60 billion.[7]

Three recent U.S. academic studies find that reprocessing and recycling would also be more expensive in the United States than directly disposing of spent fuel.[8] Although the estimated difference is a modest percentage of the price of electricity—about 3-5 percent—the total cost is large. For the current fleet of U.S. nuclear power plants, reprocessing spent fuel and recycling the recovered plutonium would add roughly $2 billion per year to the cost of U.S. nuclear-generated electricity. These extra costs would have to be passed along to ratepayers or to taxpayers if underwritten by the government.

It is sometimes argued that reprocessing will become economically attractive as the cost of reprocessing decreases or as nuclear power expands and uranium prices increase. At the average uranium price paid by U.S. reactor operators in 2004 ($33 per kilogram), our calculations indicate that reprocessing would have to cost less than $400 per kilogram of spent fuel in order to be competitive with direct disposal.[9] Yet, if the cost of building a new U.S. reprocessing facility were similar to those of facilities in France and the United Kingdom, the cost of reprocessing would be more than $2,000 per kilogram. [10] Even if reprocessing costs could somehow be cut in half to $1,000 per kilogram of spent fuel, the price of uranium would have to rise to nearly $400 per kilogram in order for reprocessing to be cost effective. It is extremely unlikely that world uranium prices will rise to this level in the next 50 years, even if nuclear power expands dramatically.

The PUREX process has been in use for more than five decades, and it seems unlikely that dramatic cost reductions could be achieved using this or the new more elaborate UREX+ reprocessing technology currently favored by the Energy Department. Indeed, increasingly stringent environmental and safety regulations could be expected to put upward pressures on costs. The experience at the new Rokkasho-mura reprocessing facility in Japan, where initial capital cost estimates more than tripled to about $20 billion, serves as a cautionary example.

A range of alternative chemical separation processes have been proposed over the decades. One that attracted support from the 2001 energy commission chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney is electrometallurgical processing, or “pyroprocessing.” Recent official reviews have concluded, however, that such techniques are likely to be substantially more expensive than PUREX.[11] Thus, there is no reason to believe that economics will favor reprocessing.

Waste Disposal

Reprocessing and recycling, as currently practiced in France and planned in Japan, do not reduce the amount of repository area required for the disposal of radioactive wastes. The required area is determined not by the mass or volume of the wastes, which are very small in comparison to the mass and volume of the surrounding rock, but by the heat output of the wastes, which raises the temperature of that rock. Put simply, the more heat output, the more storage area that will be needed. Yet, if current reprocessing approaches are used, they would not significantly reduce the total heat output, and thus they would not significantly reduce the amount of repository area required per unit of electricity generated.[12]

Substantial reductions in repository requirements could be achieved only if all the long-lived transuranic elements in the spent fuel were separated and recycled repeatedly in reactors until they were fissioned. This separation-and-transmutation system would be even more expensive, however, than traditional reprocessing and single recycle as currently practiced in France.[13] If fast-neutron reactors or accelerators were used to transmute the long-lived radionuclides more efficiently, the cost would be even higher.[14]

No one knows how expensive a complete separation-and-transmutation system would be, because the technology has not been fully developed and demonstrated, but, in the early 1990s, the Energy Department commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to do a thorough study of the benefits and costs of separating and fissioning the long-lived transuranic elements in spent fuel. The 1996 report found that the benefits if any would be small, while the costs would be very high. “The excess cost for a [separation and transmutation] disposal system over once-through disposal for the 62,000 [metric tons] of [light-water reactor] spent fuel [approximately the amount currently slated for Yucca Mountain] is uncertain but is likely to be no less than $50 billion and easily could be more than $100 billion if adopted by the United States.” [15]

If the licenses of most U.S. reactors are extended, as seems likely, the total amount of spent fuel discharged by current reactors will be about twice as large, and the extra costs of separation and transmutation would rise proportionately from $100 billion to more than $200 billion. If new reactors are built, the extra costs would be still larger. These costs would be in addition to those of the Yucca Mountain repository, which would still be needed for the disposal of the fission-product wastes.

Proliferation Implications

There are two proliferation concerns associated with reprocessing. First, reprocessing increases the risk that plutonium could be stolen by terrorists. Second, countries with reprocessing plants or separated plutonium could produce nuclear weapons before an effective international response could be mobilized.

Nuclear Terrorism

Plutonium is much more difficult than highly enriched uranium to make into a nuclear explosive, but it would not be impossible for terrorists to do so.[16] Terrorists could more easily use plutonium to make potent radiological weapons. The dispersal of 10 kilograms of plutonium-oxide aerosol 32 kilometers upwind from downtown Seattle would cause hundreds to thousands of additional cancer deaths as plutonium is deadly when inhaled. [17]

The plutonium in spent fuel is relatively inaccessible to terrorists because it is mixed with fission products, some of which—notably 30-year half-life cesium-137—emit penetrating gamma rays when they decay. The radiation dose rate one meter from a 50-year-old spent fuel assembly would be high enough to deliver a fatal dose within half an hour. [18] As a result, a spent fuel assembly, which contains about 4 kilograms of plutonium, will be “self-protecting” by the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for more than 100 years. In contrast, the penetrating-radiation dose rate from separated plutonium is so low that it can be safely carried in a light airtight container.[19]

Reprocessing separates plutonium from the fission products, making it far more vulnerable to theft. Separated plutonium could be stolen from reprocessing or MOX fuel fabrication facilities or in transit between them. In addition, fresh MOX fuel could be stolen in transit or from dispersed nuclear reactor sites, and the plutonium could be separated from the uranium using straightforward chemical processes.

As already noted, the PUREX process was originally developed to separate pure plutonium for weapons. The current Bush administration therefore established an Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) within the Energy Department to come up with a more “proliferation-resistant” reprocessing and recycle system in which pure plutonium would never be separated. The AFCI program has developed the UREX+ process, which would separate a mix of plutonium and neptunium. However, in a March 2005 hearing before Hobson’s subcommittee, AFCI Director William Magwood volunteered that “we’re not sure that it’s possible to use this chemical technology to separate the plutonium, in combination with a few other things, in a fashion that will make it both proliferation resistant and economically viable.”

The reason is quite obvious: neptunium is much less radioactive than plutonium and is itself a directly useable nuclear-weapon material. In fact, even if all of the other transuranic isotopes in spent fuel were separated and mixed with the plutonium, the gamma radiation dose rate from the mixture still would be only about 0.0001 of that from a 20-year-old spent fuel assembly and 0.001 the dose rate required to meet the IAEA’s self-protection standard.[20]

National Proliferation

For a government, the possession of a reprocessing plant would provide a quick route to a nuclear-weapon capability. Every country that has embarked on commercial reprocessing has accumulated a huge stockpile of separated plutonium. Plutonium separation by the civilian reprocessing industry has gotten so far ahead of plutonium recycling that the world stockpile of separated civilian plutonium has reached 250 tons and is still growing (see table 1). Using the IAEA’s conservative assumption that 8 kilograms is required to produce a first-generation nuclear bomb, this material represents more than 30,000 bomb equivalents—an enormous potential threat.

This is why the Ford and Carter administrations turned against commercial reprocessing. Given that the United States had been the leading promoter of reprocessing and plutonium breeder reactors for years, it was believed that the only way to turn other countries around would be to be able to say to them, “Reprocessing is neither necessary nor economic. We don’t do it. You don’t need to, either.”

In the years after India’s 1974 test, the United States was relatively successful in preventing or at least delaying the proliferation of reprocessing technology. France was persuaded not to complete the transfer of reprocessing plants to South Korea and Pakistan. A deal under which Germany would have transferred reprocessing and enrichment technologies to Brazil collapsed before the reprocessing technology was transferred. Further, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established, whose members agreed to “exercise restraint” in the transfer of reprocessing technology.

The only transfer of reprocessing technology after 1974 was to Japan, after Japan’s prime minister insisted that reprocessing was a “life or death issue.” Today, Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that has an active civilian reprocessing program. Japan’s neighbors, China and South Korea, are concerned that this program would allow Japan to acquire and deploy nuclear weapons quickly if it ever decides that they are needed.

In his talk at the National Defense University on February 11, 2004, President George W. Bush called on the NSG to deny enrichment and reprocessing technologies “to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.” Many countries have denounced this proposal as a new form of discrimination by the nuclear-weapon states. A continued U.S. stance that reprocessing is neither necessary nor economic is likely to be more influential than a policy of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The Future of Reprocessing

About 30 percent of the world’s light-water power-reactor spent fuel is being reprocessed.[21] Among the nuclear-armed states, France, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom have civilian reprocessing plants, and China is designing a pilot-scale reprocessing facility. The United Kingdom’s reprocessing plant, originally built with prepaid foreign reprocessing contracts, is expected to shut down by 2010 because of a lack of follow-on contracts but may shut down even earlier because of a recent accident. Russia reprocesses the fuel from first-generation domestic and East European power reactors in a plant that is old, subsidized, and has caused very serious radioactive contamination of the region.Thus, the future of reprocessing is unclear. In France, it appears to persist because of national pride, much as the Concorde supersonic-transport program did for decades after it was clear that it was a commercial failure. Japan’s reprocessing program is sustained by not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) pressures that have made interim storage of spent fuel politically difficult. The Japanese nuclear utilities responded by shipping their spent fuel to France and the United Kingdom to be reprocessed while Japan built its own reprocessing plant.[22] Japan has plans to recycle its 41 tons of already separated plutonium into reactor fuel, but these plans have thus far been set back by a decade as a result of NIMBY opposition from the local governments that host the reactors.[23] Russia’s reprocessing program is a relic from the Soviet era. The purpose of India’s reprocessing is to provide plutonium for its breeder-reactor development effort. That effort may be abandoned as it has been in the United States and Europe if, as a result of a July agreement between Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India gains access to the world uranium market, from which it has been excluded because it is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

U.S. power reactors annually discharge about 2,000 tons of spent fuel containing more than 20 tons of plutonium, or about as much as is being separated annually worldwide.[24] The spent fuel already discharged by U.S. reactors contains about 600 tons of plutonium. In addition to licensing and building reprocessing plants and MOX fuel fabrication facilities, a comprehensive recycling program would require that essentially all U.S. reactors be re-licensed to use MOX fuel. According to the NAS report, it would take 70 percent of U.S. nuclear capacity 30 years to dispose of just half the plutonium and other transuranic elements in 62,000 tons of spent LWR fuel—approximately what the United States will have discharged in 2008.[25] This means that disposing of the transuranics in U.S. spent fuel would far outlive the current generation of reactors.

Some of the obstacles to such a program are shown by those encountered in a similar but far less ambitious plan that the United States and Russia agreed to in 2000. According to that agreement, beginning in 2007, each country will dispose of 34 tons of excess weapon plutonium at a rate of at least two tons a year. Each plans to dispose of its plutonium by fabricating it into MOX fuel and irradiating the fuel in power reactors (see "Plutonium Disposition Accord Reached"). The ground has not yet been broken for the proposed fuel-fabrication facilities, however, and most U.S. nuclear utilities have declined to use the plutonium fuel because of concerns about licensing problems.[26]

The difficulties that would be encountered in a more ambitious effort to fission all the transuranic elements can only be imagined. Given the history of abandoned nuclear projects, ranging from nuclear-powered aircraft to plutonium breeder reactors, it is not difficult to foresee that a multigenerational project to recycle and fission all the transuranic elements would be abandoned half completed and the country would be left with a much more costly radioactive waste and security problem, including the need to secure hundreds of additional tons of separated plutonium from theft.


Given the high economic and security costs of reprocessing, there should be some important reason for Congress to back—without serious consideration—such an intricate proposal, with its generations of reactors, reprocessing, and fuel fabrication plants.

The main purpose of the proposal to reprocess U.S. spent fuel seems to be to allow Congress and the administration an easy way to avoid the politically divisive problem of deciding either to expand the capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository or launching a siting process for additional or alternative geological storage.[27] Some U.S. nuclear energy advocates also believe that dealing with the spent fuel problem in a definitive manner is essential if there is to be a renaissance of nuclear power in the United States.[28] Yet, there is no technical fix for the spent fuel problem.

Fortunately, if Congress wants to deal with the problem of nuclear waste in a thoughtful way, it has time to do so. Spent fuel can be stored safely and economically for at least 50 years in dry-cask interim storage. That leaves plenty of time to clarify the future of nuclear power in the United States and to explore in an open and systematic manner the Yucca Mountain and alternative disposition options for the spent fuel discharged by the current generation of reactors.

Steve Fetter is a professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.


1. House Committee on Appropriations, Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 2006, 109th Cong., 1st sess., 2005, H. Rep. 86.

2. Congressional Record (May 24, 2005): H3859.

3. Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, sec. 114d.

4. Ibid., sec. 161.

5. Panel on Public Affairs, American Physical Society, Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risk, May 2005, pp. 20, 22. The authors were among the nine authors of this report.

6. J-M. Charpin, B. Dessus, and R. Pellat, “Economic Forecast Study of the Nuclear Power Option,” Paris, July 2000.

7. Based on New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council, Japan Atomic Energy Commission, “Interim Report Concerning the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 2004.

8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “The Future of Nuclear Power,” 2003; Matthew Bunn et al., The Economics of Reprocessing Versus Direct Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2003); The Economic Future of Nuclear Power ( Chicago: University of Chicago, August 2004).

9. Computed using assumptions that are favorable to reprocessing, including a 50 percent reduction in base-case waste-disposal costs.

10. Assumes a plant throughput of 800 tons of spent fuel per year for 30 years; an overnight capital cost of $6 billion, repaid at interest rates appropriate for a regulated private entity with a guaranteed rate of return; annual operating costs of $560 million per year; and standard assumptions about construction time, taxes and insurance, and contingency, pre-operating, and decommissioning costs. For a government-financed facility with very low cost, the corresponding cost would be $1,350 per kilogram. For an unregulated private venture, the cost would be $3,100 per kilogram. Economics of Reprocessing Versus Direct Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, p. 213.

11. Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, “Generation IV Roadmap: Report of the Fuel Cycle Crosscut Group,” Washington, DC, March 2001; Accelerator-Driven Systems and Fast Reactors in Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycles: A Comparative Study, OECD/NEA 03109, 2002.

12. With spent fuel in the Yucca Mountain repository, the temperature of the rock between the tunnels would reach its peak about 2,000 years after the spent fuel is emplaced. If the plutonium were recycled in existing power reactors, much of it would fission, but some would be converted into other transuranic isotopes that contribute more decay heat in the first few thousand years.

13. The added complexity associated with the recovery of the minor transuranics would increase reprocessing costs, and the costs of fabricating them into fuel also would be greater because some of them are more radioactive than plutonium.

14. In current-generation power reactors, the chain reaction is sustained primarily by neutrons that are slowed down by a series of collisions with the light hydrogen nuclei in the water between the fuel rods. Such “slow” neutrons are ineffective in fissioning some transuranic isotopes. This has generated a new rationale for introducing the fast-neutron reactors, which were formerly advocated for plutonium breeding. These reactors likely would be cooled by a liquid metal such as molten sodium or lead. Neutrons do not lose much energy when they collide with the heavy nuclei of these elements.

15. Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separation and Transmutation (National Academy Press, 1996), p. 7.

16. J. Carson Mark et al., “Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?” in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, eds. Paul Leventhal and Yonah Alexander (D.C. Heath and Co., 1987), p. 55. French and Japanese reprocessing advocates have argued for decades that the “reactor-grade” plutonium in spent power-reactor fuel is not weapons usable because the fraction of the undesirable isotope Pu-240 is larger than in the weapons-grade plutonium that has been used in weapons programs. To be sure, the yield of a Nagasaki-type device would be reduced from the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT to as low as the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT because of the likelihood of premature initiation of the chain reaction by neutrons from the spontaneous fission of Pu-240, but that would still be a devastating explosion. J. Carson Mark, “Explosive Properties of Reactor-Grade Plutonium,” Science & Global Security 4, (1993), p. 111. For countries, more modern weapon designs are insensitive to pre-initiation.

17. Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel, “The Hazard from Plutonium Dispersal from Nuclear-Warhead Accidents,” Science & Global Security 2 (1990), p. 21. However, the individual chance of cancer death among the large exposed population would be only on the order of 0.1 percent.

18. W. R. Lloyd, M. K. Sheaffer, and W.G. Sutcliffe, “Dose Rate Estimates from Irradiated Light-Water-Reactor Fuel Assemblies in Air,” UCRL-ID-115199, 1994. The IAEA “self-protection” criterion is 1 Sievert (100 rems) per hour at 1 meter. The median dose for death within several weeks following exposure is about 5 Sieverts.

19. The primary radiological hazard from plutonium is from the alpha particles (helium nuclei) that it emits as it decays. These emissions can be blocked by a thin container but also make inhaled plutonium-oxide particles very dangerous.

20. Jungmin Kang and Frank von Hippel, “Limited Proliferation-Resistance Benefits From Recycling Unseparated Transuranics and Lanthanides From Light-Water Reactor Spent Fuel,” Science & Global Security (forthcoming).

21. Most power reactors worldwide, and all in the United States are cooled by ordinary “light” water, so named to distinguish it from the “heavy water” used in a power reactor type developed by Canada. In heavy water, ordinary hydrogen is replaced by heavy deuterium, which captures fewer neutrons.

22. The local tax and job benefits from hosting a reprocessing plant are much greater than those from hosting an interim spent-fuel storage facility. This appears to have been a deciding factor for the sparsely populated and economically depressed Aomori Prefecture. The central government also has committed that no spent fuel assembly or container of vitrified high-level reprocessing waste will remain at the plant for more than 50 years.

23. In 1998, Japan expected that its first MOX fuel would be loaded into two reactors in 1999. IAEA, INFCIRC/549/Add. 1, March 31, 1998. In 2004 the two utilities involved did not expect to load the fuel before 2008. Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, “Japanese Power Companies’ Pluthermal Plans: Recent Developments,” May/June 2004.

24. France reprocessed about 1,050 tons of spent fuel in 2002, down from a peak of 1,650 tons of heavy metal in 1995. With the end of foreign contracts, its reprocessing rate is expected to decline further to about 850 tons per year. The average reprocessing rate at the United Kingdom’s LWR spent fuel reprocessing plant between 1998 and 2002 was about 700 tons per year. Japan’s reprocessing plant is scheduled to come into full operation at a capacity of 800 tons per year in 2010, the year that the British plant is scheduled to shut down. Based on its declarations of civilian plutonium stocks to the IAEA, between 1996 and 2002, Russia’s reprocessing plant averages less than 200 tons per year. India’s civilian reprocessing plants have a combined capacity of about 200 tons per year, but the concentration of plutonium in spent heavy-water-reactor fuel is about one-third of that in LWR fuel, which is about 1.2 percent at current burnups.

25. The NAS report estimated 18.6 GWe operating at 100 percent capacity factor with a full MOX load. Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separation and Transmutation, p. 79. We assume 1/3 core loadings and an average 80 percent capacity factor.

26. “More Reactors Needed for Disposition Under Revised Plan, DOE Says,” Nuclear Fuel, March 4, 2002.

27. The MIT study, The Future of Nuclear Power, proposed consideration of deep borehole storage.

28. Every order for a new power reactor in the United States since 1974 has been cancelled.





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