As the Bush administration seeks to curtail the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies abroad, its preferred approaches are losing needed support. These include the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and a moratorium among the world's richest countries on exports of the sensitive technologies.
Enrichment and reprocessing technologies can yield either fuel for nuclear reactors or fissile material, highly enriched uranium or plutonium, for nuclear weapons.
GNEP has been so pilloried at home by the Democratic-controlled Congress, nonproliferation groups, and outside experts that it is increasingly unclear whether it will survive George W. Bush's presidency. In the end, its fate may be settled by the outcome of this year's U.S. presidential elections.
The Group of Eight (G-8) moratorium ended in July. Several months ago, the United States abandoned its support for efforts to completely ban such transfers. Instead, in the face of lackluster support abroad, it decided to participate in an effort begun by France in 2004 to have the 45 countries in the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) fashion common nonproliferation criteria to regulate such transfers. (See ACT, June 2008. )
Bush administration officials have claimed that GNEP, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will cut nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear weapons proliferation.
The group has continued to add new members. Administration officials recently indicated that the number of GNEP member countries may more than double from the current 21 states at a ministerial-level meeting in October. These new members could be further supplemented if any of the 17 other countries, such as Egypt, Germany, South Africa, and Sweden, that had previously been invited to join the partnership but until now have chosen to remain as observers opted to sign the partnership's statement of principles.
Nonetheless, critics have won the upper hand on Capitol Hill. They assert that the administration's course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of spent fuel reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to significantly ease waste disposal challenges without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.
These conclusions have been buttressed by critical reports from the National Academy of Sciences and the Government Accountability Office.
In June, the House Appropriations Committee cut specific funds for GNEP and approved only $120 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), which funds reprocessing research integral to the program. In February 2008, the administration had requested $302 million for the AFCI, but the Senate Appropriations Committee approved only $230 million in marking up its version of the relevant legislation July 10.
The bills now must be approved by the full House and Senate and reconciled in a conference committee before being sent to the president for signature. However, it is not clear if Congress will approve the authorization bills or the spending measures before adjourning for the November congressional and presidential elections.
In particular, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said several times that it is unlikely Congress will pass any fiscal 2009 spending bills this year beyond those for the defense budget and that Congress will instead approve a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels until a new administration takes over. Democrats not only hope to win the White House but believe that they will have stronger majorities in both chambers after the November elections.
Although neither candidate has spoken specifically about GNEP, the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), has expressed support for spent fuel reprocessing.
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has said that he favors accelerating federal research and development efforts to explore whether nuclear waste can be stored safely for reuse. His energy plan indicates, however, that although such research efforts continue, he favors interim storage solutions rather than any near-term efforts at reprocessing.
Current reprocessing technologies yield pure or nearly pure plutonium that can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors or to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons. GNEP proposes eventually to build reprocessing facilities able to render a product that would retain other elements from the spent fuel along with the plutonium, making it less attractive for weapons production than pure plutonium. Critics note that this fuel would be much less proliferation resistant than when the spent fuel is left intact and not reprocessed. They also point out that GNEP's near-term plans include more proliferation-prone technologies.
Meanwhile, the G-8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) elected for the first time since 2004 not to extend a one-year moratorium on new exports of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Instead, they urged that exporters avoid transferring goods in a way that might enable them to be copied and reproduced by recipients. The group initially instituted the moratorium following Bush's February 2004 call for banning exports of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that did not already possess operational facilities for those purposes.
The group's leaders, meeting July 7-9 in Toyako on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, also expressed support for the NSG's ongoing effort to develop criteria for future enrichment and reprocessing exports. At the supplier regime's last meeting in May, Canada and reportedly South Africa objected to some U.S. proposed criteria, fearing that it would prevent them from developing enrichment facilities to take economic advantage of their large natural uranium deposits.
In a sign that other U.S. approaches are having less success, administration officials are also trying another tactic. This involves trying to work with other nuclear supplier states to provide incentives to states that agree voluntarily to rely on the international market rather than building their own uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities. Memoranda of understanding along these lines have been signed between the United States and several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Other elements include support for physical and human infrastructure development, such as training programs for nuclear personnel and regulators; new financing from international development banks; and the development of smaller "grid-appropriate" reactors better suited for the electricity grids of developing countries.