Focus on first principles, then technology

By , September 2, 2008

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.

Topics: Nuclear Energy


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