LOOKING BACK: The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act

By Squassoni, Sharon | Arms Control Today, December 2008 | Go to article overview

LOOKING BACK: The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act


Squassoni, Sharon, Arms Control Today


The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (NNPA) sought to tighten the criteria for nuclear cooperation and reshape the nuclear fuel cycle. Many of its provisions have been forgotten, but the NNPA regained notoriety this year with the approval of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement. The objectives of the NNPA are timeless and in no danger of being achieved soon.

The solutions proposed by the NNPA may still be necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, particularly those related to sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle-uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing-that can produce fissile material either for fuel or for weapons.

Origins of the NNPA

Over the years, the NNPA has been most often associated with a critical turn in U.S. nonproliferation policy that required countries to belong to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in order to receive U.S. nuclear exports. Stung by India's 1974 nuclear test and mindful of the plans of other states outside the NPT to acquire sensitive technologies, the United States concluded that full-scope safeguards should be a prerequisite for nucleaT supply. Eventually, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) adopted the same condition for supply in 1992. Although this can be viewed as a major success of the NNPA, a closer look at what it tried to achieve, however, reveals a set of far-reaching goals that are frustratingly no closer to fruition today.

When the NNPA was signed into law 30 years ago, analysts struggled to explain the wide-ranging impact of the complex bill on U.S. nuclear exports and policy. The Congressional Research Service devoted a 35-page report to explaining its provisions in clear English. A flurry of articles appeared in such high-profile venues as Foreign Affairs to decry the new restrictive measures of the NNPA and U.S. nonproliferation policy in general. Most focused on the folly of the United States in moving the goalposts in nuclear cooperation at a time when U.S. dominance in the nuclear market was waning.

Experts can argue precisely why the NNPA evolved as it did, but the context is fairly clear. In the early 1970s, technically competent states in Asia and Europe sought to reduce their dependence on the United States as virtually the sole supplier of reactors and nuclear fuel by developing their own fuel cycle capabilities. The perceived need to diversify supply only grew stronger after the 1973 oil shock, which had two effects. First, states recognized the need to shift away from oil to generate electricity. Second, general concern about fuel supplies led states with nuclear power programs to conclude that reprocessing plutonium from spent nuclear fuel would ultimately be necessary to make the most of finite uranium supplies. The oil shocks were a key impetus for states such as France and Japan, which were greatly dependent on foreign resources for energy, to invest heavily in nuclear energy.

Until 1971, the United States had supplied about 90 percent of the reactors in the western world and dominated the low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel market through what could be described as unfair business practices-setting LEU prices artificially low (below the cost of production) and discouraging foreign enrichment ventures. A stab by the Nixon administration at encouraging some foreign enrichment plants in 1971 backfired. Europeans balked when told that they would be given access to unclassified gaseous diffusion technology, which requires enormous amounts of electricity to run, while U.S. firms would have access to more competitive, but classified, centrifuge technology.

The decisions to create both URENCO, the British-Dutch-German enrichment venture, and Eurodif, the French-run enrichment partnership, were validated by U.S. difficulties in meeting contractual obligations to supply LEU fuel just a few years later. In June 1974, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) "closed the books" on enrichment and made some existing contracts "conditional," as it discovered U.

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