It's inevitable that nuclear power will expand globally, raising the danger of increased proliferation. One controversial plan, GNEP, was pushed by the Bush administration as a way to curtail the risks. In a three-part Bulletin Web-Edition series, Leonor Tomero examined the program and what might happen to its partners and stakeholders if it's no longer funded. With that program looking less and less viable, how will the fuel cycle be managed going forward? Below, our five experts explore the issue.
The original goals of the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) were worthwhile--enabling the global expansion of nuclear energy while limiting the spread of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies.
But over the last two years, GNEP has become a feeble attempt to sidestep painful political realities and a means of rapidly promoting the nuclear industry and nuclear weapons laboratories' questionable pet technologies. The partnership needs to be reshaped so that it focuses on constructively grappling with common political obstacles and investigating essential technical questions.
The administration made the right call early on in having GNEP focus on the fuel-cycle's back end. While countries and international organizations have proposed nearly a dozen means of ensuring countries access to nuclear fuel, no other such scheme has attempted to deal with the world's growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel. Supporters are right to state that it's hard to imagine how nuclear power could expand significantly without new approaches in this arena.
Yet, rather than tackle what is essentially a political problem, GNEP seems to imply that the magic wand of a technological solution will make it disappear. With or without reprocessing, countries will have to build permanent repositories for high-level waste. Under certain scenarios, GNEP's current technology plan could ultimately cut down the amount of repository space needed, but the limits on such space are more political than technical. And reprocessing would be far more costly and would convert a relatively stable and simple form of nuclear waste into a much more complicated mix that would be difficult to manage.
Therefore, rather than focusing first on technological solutions, countries would be better off engaging each other and their people in a transparent discussion on how to deal with spent nuclear fuel, particularly looking at interim-storage solutions for the short- and medium- term.
In this discussion, we should agree on common standards when it comes to discussing the proliferation resistance of these technologies. The term "proliferation resistant" is tossed around all too glibly. Calling reprocessing technologies proliferation resistant if they merely sprinkle some uranium or neptunium in with separated plutonium makes about as much sense as calling a fattening meal healthy if one drinks diet soda along with it. And neither the current technologies that the administration wants to employ nor the longer-term technologies that it hopes to develop are as proliferation resistant as simply maintaining the spent fuel intact or shifting to thorium-based reactors or sealed nuclear batteries.
The administration was right to focus GNEP on spent-fuel issues initially since an offer to take back spent fuel could dissuade other countries from engaging in enrichment and reprocessing. As Jill Parillo notes, the administration clearly wouldn't convince countries to join GNEP if those countries were required to renounce their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "right" to possess nuclear enrichment or reprocessing technology.
The administration seems to have struck a more suitable approach recently in what it's termed "the attractive offer." Under this proposal, separate from GNEP, the United States has offered to provide nuclear-related assistance to countries that have signed memoranda of understanding indicating they will rely on the international market rather than domestic resources for enrichment or reprocessing services--i.e., the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Such assistance could include technical, workforce, and financial help. Spent fuel take back could obviously be included as well.
But what's not clear is whether other nuclear suppliers, particularly Russia and France, will support such an approach. GNEP, which is tackling some of the same infrastructure issues, could be an important forum for ensuring they do. It also seems that the United States could use its diplomatic muscle to prevent countries from joining GNEP unless they indicate a willingness to swear off domestic reprocessing and enrichment.
Leonor Tomero provides a comprehensive look at the current state of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in her Bulletin Web-Edition series, "The Future of GNEP." She lays out the inherent proliferation risks of such initiatives, which aim to expand nuclear energy in a safe and secure manner worldwide, but end up legitimizing the commercial use of sensitive fuel-cycle technology.
Ending GNEP or continuing it in its current form won't help address waste storage and proliferation concerns arising from the use and projected expansion of nuclear energy. The United States should instead transform GNEP into a truly global partnership that brings together experts from member states to discuss these issues, but not negotiate their resolution.
In order to broaden GNEP, countries need to be assured that the partnership won't be a forum for negotiating a change to Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the inalienable right of signatories to nuclear energy technology. Instead, countries could use GNEP meetings as workshops for discussing waste storage and proliferation issues that arise from their NPT-provided right to nuclear energy technology, without the risks inherent in full negotiations.
GNEP meetings would become akin to Biological Weapon Convention (BWC) annual meetings of experts and states parties, which are held in yearly intervals between treaty review conferences. These BWC meetings bring together experts from member states to discuss, but not negotiate, topics related to the BWC. Since GNEP isn't restricted to NPT states, it could be transformed into a forum for addressing nuclear energy issues, while also bringing NPT outsiders into a nonproliferation-regime dialogue.
A 2009 House Committee report instructed the Energy Department to continue to foster relations with countries with advanced fuel-cycle capabilities (i.e., Britain, France, and Japan), but not with those that don't yet have them. This isn't the right approach, since it continues to support a system of global haves and have-nots. If such a divide continues to grow, NPT and GNEP outsiders will continue to make their own rules for wheeling and dealing in sensitive fuel-cycle technologies. GNEP should instead decrease the prestige associated with being a nuclear insider by becoming an all-inclusive nuclear club.
But building trust and broadening the partnership won't be easy. GNEP must provide further proof that it doesn't plan to infringe on states' rights to nuclear energy. For example, although a real need for nuclear energy in oil-rich states is questionable, it must be accepted to entice all of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to join GNEP. Nuclear-interested countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which will see its electricity demand double by 2020, must be included in a system that allows the safest, most proliferation-resistant expansion to take place.
To convince countries to join and broaden the partnership's appeal, GNEP must also promise not to infringe on the right of sovereign nations to possess nuclear enrichment or reprocessing technology. "South Africa, as an export country cannot contribute and participate in a scheme that violates a fundamental provision of the NPT," said South African Ambassador Abdul Samad Minty during a June 2007 interview at the Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference in Washington. Such concerns must be alleviated.
Changes in GNEP have happened in the past. In order to gain broader support, Energy changed GNEP's principles and objectives at the 2007 May and September ministerials, as Leonor reported. The United States could change GNEP again. A new administration could offer incentives, in the form of further U.S. nuclear disarmament, to build international trust.
It's premature to start negotiating ways and means to curb the global spread of sensitive nuclear technology. By becoming a forum for discussion, rather than negotiation, GNEP could be a step toward creating multilateral polices to better manage the emerging global nuclear fuel cycle.