U.S. Shifts Fuel Cycle Position?

Miles A. Pomper

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman indicated in an April 5 speech that the United States may be adjusting its position on measures intended to limit the spread of materials and technologies that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Bodman’s remarks were given at a Virginia conference organized by Sandia National Laboratories. They came on the eve of a once-every-five-years nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May, during which debate over such restrictions is expected.

In his remarks, Bodman expressed a U.S. willingness to consider proposals different from that outlined by President George W. Bush in a February 2004 address.

In that speech, Bush called on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to deny transfers of uranium-enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities to countries without functioning facilities for these activities. Such facilities can be used to produce fuel for civilian power reactors or key ingredients for nuclear weapons. The NSG is a 44-member group that seeks to coordinate nuclear trade policies.

Bodman touted Bush’s approach as the “surest way to prevent proliferators from acquiring sensitive technologies,” but that proposal has run into resistance from other members. (See ACT, December 2004.) Bodman appeared to open the door to other approaches favored by European allies.

“Any approach [on restrictions] must clearly and objectively separate states that honor nonproliferation agreements from countries like Iran whose proliferation intentions are clear,” Bodman said.

“Most nations that operate nuclear energy and fuel cycle facilities comply with and support international nonproliferation agreements,” Bodman continued. “But some states, notably Iran and North Korea, have pursued nuclear fuel capabilities in secret…and in violation of their nonproliferation agreements. The plans these countries have announced for building one or two nuclear power plants certainly do not justify the high costs of developing enrichment or reprocessing programs.”

The United Kingdom and France have called for the adoption of criteria that would require countries to prove they intend the technology for peaceful purposes, such as a clean bill of health from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that acquiring such capabilities made economic sense. Those two governments and Germany are engaged in negotiations with Iran that seek to limit Tehran’s efforts to develop uranium-enrichment technologies.

Bodman’s remarks came in the wake of some other nuclear fuel-cycle proposals, including a Feb. 22 report from an international experts group appointed by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei’s group had outlined five different multilateral options that states might pursue to acquire nuclear fuel supplies and services short of constructing their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Bodman acknowledged that the question of assuring fuel supplies and services had to be addressed.

“We should begin now to consider ways in which national governments and the commercial sector can provide assured fuel services for qualifying states,” Bodman said.

He also called for industry officials to come together with governments to “develop a ‘code of conduct’ governing nuclear supply.” Industry officials at the conference said that they had not yet been consulted about the proposal.