NRC Nixes Bid for Proliferation Reviews

Daniel Horner

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last month rejected a petition from the American Physical Society (APS) that would have required a “nuclear proliferation assessment” from applicants seeking a license to use new technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

In documents supporting the decision, which the agency released May 31, the NRC commissioners largely endorsed an analysis by the NRC staff rebutting the claim the APS made in a November 2010 petition that the current NRC licensing process does not adequately take proliferation concerns into account. The staff analysis also argued that “[a]n assessment based solely on information available to a commercial entity would be of little value to the NRC in assessing the proliferation risks associated with licensing a particular facility.”

But, drawing primarily from comments by Chairman Allison Macfarlane and Commissioner William Magwood, the five-member commission said the staff “should periodically review our regulations and guidance to ensure that our requirements are robust enough to meet new proliferation challenges involved in building and operating enrichment or reprocessing facilities that use technologies the NRC has not previously licensed.”

In her comments explaining her vote, Macfarlane said that the current system is not “broken or deficient,” but rather “robust and strong” because of the “tapestry of protection” provided by NRC regulations on physical security, information security, material control and accounting, and export control. Also, she said, although the NRC has “an important role in preventing proliferation,” other federal agencies “are on the frontlines.”

Yet, she called for “a more comprehensive strategy for assessing the proliferation risks posed by technologies that we are asked to license” and regular reassessments of “the continually changing nature of the [proliferation] threat.”

In a May 31 press release, the APS called the NRC decision “unfortunate,” but urged companies to conduct independent assessments of technologies that could exacerbate proliferation risks because a covert proliferator could use such technologies to build facilities that are small and difficult to detect.

In its petition, the APS specifically mentioned laser isotope separation, a method of uranium enrichment. The group filed its petition after GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy applied for a license to build and operate an enrichment plant in North Carolina using that technology. The NRC granted the license last September.