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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Reprocessing Revisited:The International Dimensions of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership
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Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel

In a February 2004 speech at the National Defense University, President George W. Bush proposed that the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group adopt a policy to “refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.” Bush’s proposal was consistent with mainstream U.S. nonproliferation policy.

For decades, the United States had opposed the ambitions of South Korea and several other non-nuclear-weapon states to begin civil spent fuel reprocessing programs. Washington rightly feared that allowing these states to separate plutonium from highly radioactive spent fuel would destabilize the nonproliferation regime by drastically reducing the time between a decision to acquire nuclear weapons and having a large nuclear arsenal. This would make both internal and external constraints on proliferation much less effective.

Yet only two years after Bush’s speech, spurred by the fear that the inability to remove spent nuclear fuel piling up at reactor sites in the United States and many other countries would threaten a nuclear renaissance, the Bush administration subsumed its initial proposal into a new scheme known as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). One of the chief objectives of GNEP was to promote the virtues of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing and the civil use of plutonium as a nuclear waste management strategy. Although GNEP represented a reversal of previous U.S. policies that opposed the spread of reprocessing, the Bush administration billed GNEP as a nonproliferation initiative because it would still limit reprocessing facilities to the nuclear-weapons states and Japan and would use reprocessing technologies that would not separate pure plutonium, unlike the PUREX (plutonium and uranium extraction) technology in use today. GNEP member states without reprocessing plants would be encouraged to send their spent fuel to other countries for reprocessing.

Today, GNEP no longer adheres to these constraints. Eager for support from reprocessing states such as France, Japan, and Russia, the Bush administration has stopped warning about the dangers of separated plutonium. It now advocates the quick deployment of a minor variant of PUREX for reprocessing U.S. power reactor fuel, even though this modification would produce a mixture of uranium and plutonium that would be as vulnerable to theft or diversion as plutonium alone. For the longer term, the Bush administration champions liquid sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing, a form of reprocessing that it describes as “proliferation resistant” although it falls far short of any common-sense definition of this standard.

At U.S. urging, 20 other countries, including South Korea, have now joined the United States in signing a GNEP Statement of Principles that embraces the development and use of reprocessing technology and contains no commitments on the part of its members to limit the spread of sensitive fuel cycle facilities such as reprocessing plants.

In promoting the development of pyroprocessing and other experimental separations technologies, the Bush administration says it hopes to persuade those countries that currently use conventional PUREX reprocessing to switch to these other technologies eventually, thereby ending the production of pure plutonium. Yet through GNEP, the administration is promoting reprocessing primarily to countries that do not reprocess at all but rather store their spent fuel. Spent fuel storage is a far more proliferation-resistant management strategy than any form of reprocessing.

In a February 2008 speech, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, argued that “closing the fuel cycle is essential for expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. and around the world.” This assertion is highly questionable because reprocessing is 10 times more costly than spent fuel storage. If nuclear power is to become more widely competitive, its cost must decrease, not increase. Spurgeon’s view, however, reflects the belief of GNEP supporters in the need to bypass the political logjams that block permanent spent fuel storage, which they see as a chief impediment to a major global increase in nuclear power. In the absence of geological repositories, reprocessing plants provide an alternative destination for the spent fuel accumulating at nuclear power plants.

This change in the U.S. attitude toward reprocessing is at odds with the welcome, recent global trend of countries abandoning reprocessing because it is costly and complicates waste disposal rather than facilitating it. The net result of even a partial success of the Bush administration’s policy would be a reversal in the decline in the number of countries with stockpiles of separated plutonium, thereby undermining the nonproliferation regime.

Hopefully, Congress and the next administration will try to reverse the damage done by the Bush administration’s ill-considered promotion of reprocessing.

Reprocessing and Proliferation

Plutonium is produced as a result of neutron absorption in uranium-238 whenever uranium is irradiated in nuclear reactors. U-238 makes up more than 95 percent of the uranium in the fuel used in today’s common light-water reactors (LWRs), But it does not typically provide the energy in the once-through-nuclear fuel cycle; that comes from the rarer chain-reacting isotope uranium-235. Reprocessing was developed by the United States during the Manhattan Project to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons by chemically separating it from spent nuclear fuel. During the 1960s, under the leadership of plutonium co-discoverer Glenn Seaborg, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission promoted the civil use of reprocessing to separate plutonium for use as a fuel in nuclear power reactors. Seaborg predicted that liquid sodium-cooled plutonium breeder reactors would be deployed worldwide to convert abundant U-238 into chain-reacting plutonium to fuel thousands of additional reactors.

Then, in 1974, India set off a nuclear explosive made with plutonium it obtained by reprocessing the fuel of a research reactor supplied by Canada for peaceful use. This event led the Ford administration to propose halting domestic reprocessing and to try to prevent the spread of this technology to other countries.[1] Using vigorous diplomacy, the United States persuaded France not to ship spent fuel reprocessing plants to Pakistan and South Korea. In addition, the United States pressured Taiwan to refrain from developing a reprocessing facility. U.S. pressure also helped to stop a deal under which Germany had committed to provide Brazil with a reprocessing plant.

The Carter administration continued the re-evaluation of U.S. plutonium policy and concluded that neither reprocessing nor breeder reactors would be economic for the foreseeable future. Following up on the Ford administration’s proposal that U.S. opposition to plutonium separation abroad would be more effective if it were not pursued at home, President Jimmy Carter imposed a moratorium on reprocessing, stopping the licensing process for a reprocessing plant in South Carolina.[2] President Ronald Reagan reversed that ban on commercial reprocessing in the United States but stressed that the private sector should “take the lead in developing commercial reprocessing services.”[3] U.S. utilities had recognized by that time, however, that fuel made with recycled plutonium would be much more costly than low-enriched uranium fuel and were not interested in financing a reprocessing enterprise. Instead, they asked the federal government to take over responsibility for disposing of their spent fuel.

In 1982, Congress instructed the Department of Energy to build spent fuel repositories deep underground and start shipping spent fuel from the utility sites by 1998. Today, however, the Energy Department projects that its first repository, built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, will not open until after 2017, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed that “[t]he proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump is never going to open.”[4] Despite the fact that a geologic repository would still be needed under any realistic reprocessing scenario, uncertainty about the future of the Yucca Mountain repository is a principal reason why the issue of reprocessing is once again alive in the United States. Nuclear utilities in other countries have also encountered opposition to siting geological radioactive waste repositories. Only in Finland has a repository been sited, adjacent to Finland’s main nuclear power plant site.[5] This has a political advantage because the spent fuel is already there, emplacing it underground will reduce its hazards.

Radioactive Waste Politics and the Rise and Fall of Civilian Reprocessing Abroad

In the 1970s, nuclear utilities in Western Europe and Japan found a temporary fix for their waste problems by shipping spent fuel for reprocessing in France and the United Kingdom, which had originally built reprocessing plants to produce plutonium for their weapons programs. In parallel, the Soviet Union took back spent fuel from Eastern European countries that it had supplied with fresh fuel and reprocessed some of it.

States that shipped spent fuel to the Soviet Union were able to get rid of it forever. States that shipped to France and the United Kingdom obtained only a temporary respite from their disposal problem. Domestic politics made it impossible for France or the United Kingdom to keep the radioactive waste generated from their reprocessing of foreign spent fuel. They therefore required that the separated plutonium and the concentrated high-level waste from reprocessing be shipped back to the country of origin. This meant that the customer countries had to locate and build high-level radioactive waste and plutonium storage facilities even after paying reprocessing charges 10 times larger than it would have cost simply to store the spent fuel. Recently, Russia has adopted the same policy of shipping high-level waste back to its foreign reprocessing customers.

As a result, 13 of the 14 customer countries that made reprocessing a source of foreign exchange for France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have decided not to renew their reprocessing contracts.[6] Twelve have decided on interim storage of their spent fuel. The thirteenth, Japan, has built its own $20 billion reprocessing facility. Japan justifies this costly decision by arguing that, otherwise, with no way to ship spent fuel from its nuclear power plant sites, it would have had to shut them all down.[7]

Given the loss of all of its foreign customers, the United Kingdom plans to shut down its reprocessing plants.[8] After this, only China, France, India, Japan, and Russia will operate reprocessing facilities. China does not have an operating reprocessing plant today, but it is building a pilot reprocessing plant and is negotiating with France to purchase a full-scale plant.[9] Belgium, Germany, and Italy have shut down their pilot-scale reprocessing plants.

Thus, three decades after the United States adopted an anti-reprocessing policy, one nuclear-weapon state is quitting, another is starting, three non-nuclear-weapon states have quit, and 12 non-nuclear-weapon states that were having their spent fuel reprocessed abroad have quit or will quit soon. Japan, which had completed a pilot reprocessing plant in 1974 before the United States reversed its pro-reprocessing policy, remains the only non-nuclear-weapon state that reprocesses. Its reprocessing program has been a major source of suspicion and envy in South Korea.

In this context of declining international interest in reprocessing, the Bush administration in 2006 proposed building a U.S. reprocessing plant (with an unspecified mix of public and private financing) and is urging other countries to have their fuel reprocessed.

Proliferation-Resistant Reprocessing?

The first signs of the Bush administration’s pro-reprocessing policy appeared four months after Bush took office in the report of the energy commission headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. One of the report’s recommendations was that “the United States should reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment of fuel conditioning methods (such as pyroprocessing) that reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance.”[10]

Even in the nuclear energy community, pyroprocessing is relatively unknown. It is a form of reprocessing developed by the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory to treat the metal fuel from a small experimental breeder reactor in Idaho, which is now being decommissioned.[11]

In traditional PUREX reprocessing, spent fuel is dissolved in hot nitric acid, and plutonium and uranium of high purity are extracted by bubbling an organic solvent through the mix. By contrast, pyroprocessing dissolves the spent fuel in molten salt, and the plutonium can be collected at a cathode by passing an electric current through the salt. The plutonium is not pure but is mixed with uranium, some rare-earth fission products (notably cerium-144), and the other transuranic elements: americium, curium, and neptunium. This is the basis for the claim that pyroprocessing is proliferation resistant. To assess this claim, however, one needs to define the term carefully.

Proliferation resistance is determined by several different properties of a fuel cycle system. One is how easily a non-nuclear-weapon state that is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) could covertly obtain weapons-usable material from a facility subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Another is how quickly such a country could use a facility to obtain significant quantities of weapons-usable material should it decide to break out of its NPT constraints. A third is how easily a subnational group could divert or steal weapons-usable material.

It is not easy by any of these routes to get plutonium from a once-through cycle in which spent nuclear fuel is stored and eventually emplaced in a geologic repository. A typical spent fuel assembly is a large object weighing approximately half a ton and containing a low concentration (around 1 percent) of plutonium, diluted by uranium and mixed with fission products, some of which generate a lethal field of gamma rays (higher-energy versions of X-rays). Because of this radiation field, extracting plutonium from spent fuel is a difficult undertaking, requiring remotely controlled operations behind meter-thick walls.

In contrast, plutonium that has been separated from spent fuel by the PUREX process emits such a low level of penetrating radiation that a person could carry a bomb’s worth (less than eight kilograms) in lightweight containers without incurring a radiation dose high enough to cause severe injury in the near term. (Even a small radiation dose brings with it a slightly increased chance of cancer in the long term.) The IAEA currently considers nuclear material “self-protecting” if the radiation dose rate one meter away is at least one Sievert per hour (100 rems/hour).[12] The gamma and neutron dose rate from a 50-year-old spent fuel assembly containing five kilograms of plutonium would be about 10 Sieverts/hour while that from a kilogram of separated plutonium is about one million times lower. It is therefore far easier to divert separated plutonium to a national or subnational weapons program than it is to divert and separate the plutonium in a spent fuel assembly.

Keeping the transuranic elements americium and curium mixed with plutonium in pyroprocessing would increase its radiation dose a hundred-fold but only to a level that would still be one thousand times lower than the IAEA’s self-protection standard.[13]

It is also relatively easy in the once-through fuel cycle to keep track of spent fuel assemblies. In contrast, the IAEA has conceded that material accountancy alone cannot effectively detect national diversion of weapons-useable quantities of plutonium at large reprocessing facilities because of the huge throughputs of plutonium involved and the inaccuracies of plutonium measurement. Pyroprocessing is even more problematic in this regard because the higher radiation levels and inhomogeneous mixture being processed render it even more difficult to measure accurately the plutonium in the process.[14]

Finally, the stockpiling of large quantities of separated plutonium in a fuel cycle involving reprocessing would result in a breakout time for nuclear weapons production far shorter than for the once-through fuel cycle case. The same would be true for a pyroprocessing plant. Indeed, a 1992 study commissioned jointly by the Departments of Energy and State showed a variety of ways to use a pyroprocessing plant to produce relatively pure plutonium.[15]

Thus, although pyroprocessing does produce a mixture that is more radioactive than the pure plutonium produced by PUREX, the difference is not great enough to justify claims that it is significantly more proliferation resistant and certainly not great enough to justify assertions by some U.S. officials that “pyroprocessing is not reprocessing.” In any case, PUREX is the wrong standard for comparison. For the United States and South Korea, which are jointly pursuing pyroprocessing research and development, pyroprocessing should be compared with their current practice of simply storing the spent fuel. In that context, pyroprocessing appears anything but proliferation resistant.

Pyroprocessing is designed to treat metal fuel for liquid sodium-cooled reactors and is not optimal for the ceramic uranium-oxide fuel used by LWRs that are standard in the world today. Consequently, the Energy Department’s reprocessing research and development program has focused instead on a family of technologies related to PUREX that are more suited for reprocessing uranium-oxide fuel. They are called UREX+ (uranium extraction-plus). As with pyroprocessing, the plutonium would be mixed with various other transuranic elements.[16] The department’s current preference is to use a UREX+ variant that keeps plutonium mixed only with uranium and neptunium.[17] Neptunium is a weapons-usable isotope that is less radioactive than plutonium. Adding it to plutonium therefore would not decrease at all the attractiveness of the mixture for weapon purposes. Also, the uranium dilutant could be separated out with very simple chemical processing.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

In reaction to the Bush administration’s growing interest in restarting a reprocessing industry in the United States, many critics expressed concern about the impact of such an initiative on U.S. efforts to discourage non-nuclear-weapon states from separating out plutonium. The Bush administration’s answer was to embed the new U.S. reprocessing and recycle program in GNEP, unveiled in February 2006. In rolling out the initiative, Bush announced that:

America will work with nations that have advanced civilian nuclear energy programs, such as France, Japan, and Russia [to] develop and deploy innovative advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent nuclear fuel. As these technologies are developed, we will work with our partners to help developing countries meet their growing energy needs [and] ensure that these developing countries have a reliable nuclear fuel supply. In exchange, these countries would agree to…forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities that can be used to develop nuclear weapons.[18]

As already noted, however, sending spent fuel abroad to be reprocessed has proven unattractive unless the reprocessing country keeps the radioactive waste. France and the United Kingdom have found that to be politically impossible; the United States almost certainly would as well. The White House therefore hoped that Russia would be able to reprocess the spent fuel and keep the nuclear wastes of countries without reprocessing plants.[19] Several years ago, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy was interested in doing just this and succeeded, despite massive public opposition, in getting the Russian Duma to pass a law making it legal. In November 2005, however, the helm of Russia’s nuclear establishment, now called Rosatom, was taken over by Sergey Kirienko, a former prime minister, who proved to be less willing to ignore public opinion on this matter. Two months after the Energy Department unveiled GNEP, a Rosatom spokesperson indicated that, apart from a continuing willingness to take back spent fuel produced from nuclear fuel and nuclear reactors that it had supplied, Rosatom was no longer interested in taking other countries’ spent fuel.[20]

The Energy Department was unfazed. In parallel to its efforts to form an industrial coalition to support reprocessing, it launched an effort to form a coalition of countries committed to a GNEP Statement of Principles that includes the development and demonstration of “advanced technologies for recycling spent fuel for deployment in facilities that do not separate pure plutonium.” The principles statement reassures countries that they “would not give up any rights” if they join the partnership.[21] Although the rights in question are not explicitly specified, the countries that insisted on the inclusion of this language, including Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine, made clear that they would not give up their rights to acquire national enrichment plants.[22] South Korea has also expressed an interest in acquiring a reprocessing plant. Thus, in part at least because of the Energy Department’s tireless proselytizing, the United States has been pushed back from one of GNEP’s original rationales, to persuade countries that do not already have full-scale commercial enrichment or reprocessing plants to abstain from developing them.

As of February 29, 2008, 20 countries in addition to the United States had signed up as GNEP partners. Of these, 16 are non-nuclear-weapon states of which one-half do not yet have nuclear power plants. Of those partners that are non-nuclear-weapon states and do have nuclear power plants, all but one (Japan) have never reprocessed or have ended their reprocessing contracts with Russia.

It is difficult to see any nonproliferation rationale in the United States persuading 15 non-nuclear-weapon states to choose reprocessing over a once-through fuel cycle.

Back to PUREX

When GNEP was first announced, the Energy Department planned to build an engineering-scale facility to demonstrate the UREX+ technology. However, UREX+ was not ready for deployment on the department’s ambitious schedule. As a result of industry feedback, department officials eliminated the demonstration step and decided instead to seek proposals from industry to construct a more conventional, commercial-scale plant large enough to reprocess the 2,000 tons of spent fuel being discharged annually by U.S. power reactors and perhaps start digging into the backlog. It was to be the largest reprocessing plant in the world[23] and cost at least $20 billion.[24]

In May 2007, the United States withdrew its opposition to the indefinite continued use of PUREX reprocessing by other countries.[25] In an August 3, 2006, telephone press conference, scheduled to answer questions about the Energy Department’s request for expressions of interest in building a reprocessing plant, Spurgeon indicated that he was willing to consider any proposal to build a reprocessing plant in the United States as long as it did not involve the separation of pure plutonium. In response to a follow-up question, he indicated that he was specifically willing to consider a minor variant of PUREX known as COEX (co-extraction) that was being offered by France’s nuclear conglomerate, Areva. With COEX, the plutonium would be left mixed with an equal amount of uranium.[26] This product would be little different from pure plutonium, however, with regard to the length of time required to convert it to nuclear weapons use. As a recent Argonne National Laboratory report has acknowledged, the plutonium could be separated out using a well-known chemical process.[27]

Congress Becomes Skeptical

In 2007, Congress became alarmed about the Energy Department’s proposal to commit quickly tens of billions of dollars to the construction of a huge reprocessing plant in the United States. The House Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee was particularly concerned and stated bluntly in the report on its proposed fiscal year 2008 energy and water appropriations bill that the “aggressive program proposed by the Department is at best premature” and that “before the Department can expect the Committee to support funding for a major new initiative, the Department must provide a complete and credible estimate of the life-cycle costs of the program.”[28] A few months later, a review of the Energy Department’s nuclear energy research and development program by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council came to a similar conclusion when it reported that “[a]ll committee members agree that the GNEP program should not go forward and should be replaced by a less aggressive research program.”[29]

Finally, in the House-Senate conference report that accompanied the consolidated appropriations act for fiscal year 2008, Congress instructed the Energy Department that “no funds are provided for facility construction for technology demonstration or commercialization.”[30] Accordingly, in its fiscal year 2009 budget request, submitted in February 2008, the Bush administration postponed plans to select sites for construction of a commercial-scale reprocessing plant and a fast-neutron reactor and only sought funds for research and development. It still proposes, however, to build a smaller facility at a national lab site to develop reprocessing techniques on a pilot-plant scale.[31] The decision on whether to push forward beyond the research and development stage will be left to the next administration and Congress.


Hopefully, Congress has learned as a result of its temporary enthusiasm and then disillusionment with GNEP that there are much worse alternatives to interim storage of spent fuel at U.S. nuclear power plants. Reprocessing, whether PUREX, UREX+, or pyroprocessing, would cost many times more and would convert one relatively simple and stable waste form into a variety of waste streams that must be managed, including contaminated equipment and materials from the reprocessing plant itself when it is decommissioned. It also creates a vast stockpile of separated plutonium that would make it possible for countries to deploy weapons quickly and massively in a time shorter than required to mobilize domestic and international opposition. These plutonium stockpiles could also become targets of theft for would-be nuclear terrorists.

In comparison, dry-cask storage of spent fuel, which is being used at U.S. nuclear power plants to handle the overflow from spent fuel storage pools that have reached capacity, is benign. Ninety-five percent of all U.S. spent fuel is at nuclear power plants that will operate for decades longer. At such sites, the added risk from the spent fuel is small in comparison to that from the fuel in the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools. If cooling water is lost to a reactor core, it will begin releasing vaporized fission products within minutes. If cooling water is lost from a spent fuel pond, recently discharged fuel would heat up to ignition temperature with hours. In contrast, the heat from several-year-old spent fuel in dry casks is carried away passively by the convection of the surrounding air. Also, because each dry cask contains only a small fraction of the radioactive material contained in a reactor core or spent fuel pool, even a successful terrorist attack on a dry cask would have a relatively limited impact.

Eventually, the spent fuel on U.S. sites will have to be removed or buried deep underground, but there is no need to panic. Committing the United States to reprocessing any time in the next several decades would be a costly and dangerous decision that might postpone but would not avoid the need for a geological repository.[32]

South Korea-U.S. Cooperation: Is Pyroprocessing Reprocessing?

Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel

The steady increase in U.S. cooperation with South Korea on nuclear fuel-cycle technology over the last several years is a prime example of the erosion of U.S. nonproliferation policy regarding reprocessing.

For decades, the United States has sought to discourage South Korean acquisition of a reprocessing facility that could provide the capability to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons. South Korea attempted to acquire a reprocessing plant in the mid-1970s after President Richard Nixon decided to draw down the number of U.S. troops deployed in South Korea. This initiative included the purchase of a heavy water research reactor from Canada (similar to the reactors that Israel and India used to produce plutonium for their weapons programs) and a reprocessing plant from France. Both orders were cancelled at the request of the United States. In 2004, South Korea revealed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that researchers at the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) had carried out laboratory-scale experiments in 1982 to recover plutonium from irradiated uranium and in 2000 to enrich uranium using lasers, each time without informing the IAEA first, as required by South Korea’s safeguards agreement.[1]

Since at least 2005, however, the United States has provided funding and expertise to South Korea in support of projects related to a type of spent fuel reprocessing known as pyroprocessing. KAERI expects this cooperation to lead to a prototype commercial pyroprocessing plant by 2025.[2] The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding the joint pyroprocessing projects with KAERI through its International Nuclear Energy Research Initiative.

One problem with this program is that, in 1992, North and South Korea agreed, in the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, that neither would acquire nor use nuclear weapons and that neither would acquire nuclear reprocessing and enrichment facilities. North Korea has violated this agreement, but South Korea still considers itself bound by it and hopes that the agreements recently achieved in the six-party talks will restore North Korea to compliance. Therefore, U.S. efforts to promote pyroprocessing in South Korea do not seem consistent with the Korean peninsula denuclearization agreement.

In October 2007, one of the authors asked a pertinent Energy Department official how one could reconcile the department’s collaboration with KAERI on pyroprocessing with South Korea’s commitment to comply with the denuclearization agreement. His response was that the Department of State had decided that “pyroprocessing is not reprocessing.”[3] Further inquiry established that this remains a contentious issue within the State Department, which has not yet granted approval for South Korea to pyroprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel in its domestic facilities. Nonetheless, even if it determines that pyroprocessing is a form of reprocessing, the Bush administration may well be inclined to give South Korea a green light to proceed because it is a close ally of the United States, has an advanced nuclear energy sector, and, in recent years at least, has had a good nonproliferation record. This would be consistent with the Bush administration’s reasoning in exempting Argentina and Brazil from its stated opposition to countries acquiring enrichment facilities if they do not already have a full-scale functioning plant.[4]

Meanwhile, U.S. cooperation with South Korea on pyroprocessing has been developing in a stepwise fashion. In 2005, with U.S. technical assistance, South Korea built a laboratory-scale Advanced [Spent Fuel] Conditioning Process Facility (ACPF) in KAERI’s Irradiated Material Examination Facility. This facility has been configured to convert oxide light-water reactor spent fuel into a metallic form. Although it will not have cathodes to separate the transuranic elements from uranium and some fission products, the ACPF should be considered a laboratory-scale reprocessing facility because it would separate the transuranics from the fission product, cesium-137. This isotope provides the primary radiation barrier for spent fuel 10 or more years after its discharge from a reactor.

To date, South Korea has only processed unirradiated uranium oxide in the ACPF. Under the terms of the South Korea-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement, before South Korea can treat U.S.-origin spent fuel in the ACPF, it must obtain U.S. consent. This cannot happen until a plutonium safeguards system has been designed for the process that meets the IAEA’s criteria. In September 2007, a joint paper by KAERI and Los Alamos National Laboratory experts reported that such a system had been developed and that hot operation was scheduled to begin in 2008.[5] As of February 2008, however, the United States had not issued a Subsequent Arrangement authorizing the processing of U.S.-origin spent fuel in the ACPF, and one State Department official has indicated privately that the State Department is backing away from its previous positive attitude toward support for pyroprocessing facilities in South Korea. There is no indication, however, that the United States will terminate the ongoing research and development collaboration on pyroprocessing.

The South Korean government also has not yet reached a consensus regarding whether it wants to go down the reprocessing path being promoted by the Energy Department and KAERI. Congress and the next U.S. administration will therefore have the opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of disseminating reprocessing technologies based on a faulty assessment that they are proliferation resistant.


1. Paul Kerr, “IAEA Probes Seoul’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, October 2004, p. 33; Paul Kerr, “Déjá Vu? Seoul’s Past Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, October 2004, p. 34; Paul Kerr, “IAEA: Seoul’s Nuclear Sins in Past,” Arms Control Today, December 2004, p. 36.

2. KAERI, “KAERI Pursues an [sic] [Sodium-cooled Reactor] Fuel Cycle With Pyroprocessing,” Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle System in Korea Newsletter, Vol. 1 (Winter 2008), p. 7.

3. See Miles A. Pomper, “Concerns Raised as South Korea Joins GNEP,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2008, p. 44 (quoting anonymous U.S. government officials to the same effect).

4. Richard Stratford, director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Nuclear Energy Affairs asserted at the June 2004 Carnegie Endowment International Nonproliferation Conference that Argentina and Brazil satisfy the criterion because they had enrichment plants under IAEA safeguards. However, the Argentinian plant was shut down and the IAEA classified the Brazilian facility as a pilot plant. The enrichment capacity of each facility is about one percent as large as existing commercial plants. In 2006, Brazil began to bring online a commercial plant with the capacity about 10 percent as large as the smallest existing commercial plant.

5. Ho-dong Kim et al., “Safeguards System for the Advanced Spent Fuel Conditioning Process Facility,” Proceedings of Global 2007: Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycles and Systems conference, Boise, Idaho, September 9-13, 2007, p. 356.


Edwin Lyman is a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.


1. Gerald Ford, “Statement on Nuclear Policy,” October 28, 1976.

2. Jimmy Carter, “Nuclear Power Policy: Statement on Decisions Reached Following a Review,” April 7, 1977.

3. Ronald Reagan,”Statement Announcing a Series of Policy Initiatives on Nuclear Energy,” October 8, 1981.

4. Henry Reid, “Yucca Mountain,” n.d., http://reid.senate.gov/issues/yucca.cfm.

5. TVO(Finnish nuclear power plant operator), “Spent Fuel Final Repository,” www.tvo.fi/www/page/1724/

6. Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine. The fourteenth is the Netherlands, which operates only one small (435 MWe), 35-year-old reactor.

7. Japan Atomic Energy Commission, “New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council Interim Report: Interim Report Concerning Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy,” November 12, 2004 (“Evaluation of Four Scenarios,” translated by the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, Tokyo).

8. British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, “Strategy,” April 7, 2006, pp. 45, 46.

9. “Areva Chinese Plant Order Conditional on Waste Technology Deal,” Thomson Financial News, January 15, 2008.

10. “National Energy Policy: Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group,” May 2001, app. 1 (“Summary of Recommendations”).

11. Argonne National Laboratory, “Technology Pioneered at Argonne Shows Promise for Next Generation of Nuclear Reactors,” Frontiers: Research Highlights, 2002.

12. Many analysts have viewed this standard as an inadequate deterrent against theft. A recent Oak Ridge National Laboratory study argues that an effective self-protection threshold would be greater by at least a factor of 100. See for example C. W. Coates et al., “Radiation Effects on Personnel Performance Capability and a Summary of Dose Levels for Spent Research Reactor Fuels,” December 2005 (prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy). The United States has proposed raising the threshold by a factor of 10 in national and international regulations and taking into account other properties of the material in the definition of self-protection. Joseph Rivers, Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting on nuclear security, Rockville, MD, November 8, 2007. So although some older spent LWR fuel assemblies might be below the new dose threshold, given their size and weight, they would probably continue to be regarded as having low vulnerability to theft.

13. Some short-lived fission products that would remain mixed with the plutonium could make it self-protecting for a couple of years after discharge from a reactor, although not if the threshold is raised by a factor of 10, as the United States has proposed, but the median age of U.S. spent fuel is about 20 years and climbing. Edwin Lyman, “Interim Storage Matrices for Excess Plutonium Approaching the Spent Fuel Standard Without Use of Reactors,” PU/CEES Report No. 286, August 1994; 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 No. 13 (2005), p. 169; E. D. Collins, “Closing the Fuel Cycle Can Extend the Lifetime of the High-level-waste Repository,” presentation at the American Nuclear Society 2005 Winter meeting, November 17, 2005.

14. Rahmat Aryaeinejad et al., “Safeguards and Non-proliferation Issues as Related to Advanced Fuel Cycle and Advanced Fast Reactor Development With Processing of Reactor Fuel,” paper presented at the 2006 IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium, INL/CON-06-11869, October 2006.

15. R. G. Wymer et. al., “An Assessment of the Proliferation Potential and International Implications of the Integral Fast Reactor,” K/IPT-511, 1992, p. 80 (Martin Marietta Energy Systems report prepared for the Departments of State and Energy).

16. Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report to Congress on Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative: The Future Path for Advanced Spent Fuel Treatment and Transmutation Research,” January 2003.

17. Dennis Spurgeon, “Congressional Briefing,” February 13, 2008.

18. George W. Bush, “President’s Radio Address,” Office of the Press Secretary, February 18, 2006.

19. Peter Baker, “U.S. and Russia to Enter Civilian Nuclear Pact; Bush Reverses Long-Standing Policy, Allows Agreement That May Provide Leverage on Iran,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2006, p. A1.

20. Ann MacLachlan and Daniel Horner, “Russia Drops Plans for Taking in Foreign Spent Fuel, Citing Other Priorities,” Nuclear Fuel, July 31, 2006. See Miles Pomper, “Russia Looks to Tighten U.S. Nuclear Ties,” Arms Control Today, November 2006, p. 50.

21. U.S. Department of Energy, “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Statement of Principles,” September 16, 2007.

22. Jill Parillo and Rebecca Cooper, “Potential ‘Receiver’ Nations Rebuff Fuel Leasing Overtures,” Nuclear Weapon and Materials Monitor, Vol. 11, No. 29 (July 9, 2007); Rebecca Cooper, “More Countries Sign on to GNEP as U.S. Modifies Approach,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 27 (September 24, 2007).

23. U.S. Department of Energy, “Notice of Request for Expressions of Interest in a Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center to Support the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership,” Federal Register, Vol. 71 (August 7, 2006), p. 44676.

24. Cost estimate made in a study prepared for Areva, which hopes to build a PUREX reprocessing plant in the United States. Boston Consulting Group, “Economic Assessment of Used Nuclear Fuel Management in the United States,” 2006. Cost does not include interest on investment during construction.

25. “On GNEP and Nuclear Cooperation, Interview with French CEA Chairman Alain Bugat,” Nuclear Fuel Cycle Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 15 (June 4, 2007).

26. Dennis Spurgeon, transcript of telephone press conference of August 3, 2006.

27. “This co-extraction process [COEX]…is also being promoted as a proliferation-resistant separation process that could be used in advanced nuclear fuel cycles. This assertion is however debatable since the separation of the co-extracted uranium and plutonium involves an additional chemical process that is known to most fuel chemistry experts.” T. A. Taiwo et al., “Co-Extraction Impacts on LWR and Fast Reactor Fuel Cycles,” ANL-AFCI-187, May 31, 2007, p. 8. According to a table in the same report, the critical mass of a bare sphere of the COEX product is only 5.6 times the bare critical mass of weapons-grade plutonium. Therefore, even unseparated, the mixture is directly weapon-usable. Ibid. p. 31.

28. House Appropriations Committee, “Report on House FY08 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill,” H. Rpt. 110-185, June 11, 2007, pp. 66-68.

29. “Summary,” Review of DOE’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program, October 30, 2007.

30. House Appropriations Committee, “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Division C: Energy and Water Development,” p. 568.

31. U.S. Department of Energy, “GNEP Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement Update,” n.d, www.gnep.energy.gov/PEIS/gnepPEIS.html.

32. Frank N. von Hippel, “Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, January 2007.