Not the First Time: The Long History of Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Arms Control Today, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Not the First Time: The Long History of Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle


The idea of a multilateral approach to the fuel cycle is not new. Soon after the nuclear age began, the United States unsuccessfully advanced a proposal for multinational control of the nuclear fuel cycle: the 1946 Baruch Plan. Named for U.S. diplomat Bernard Baruch, the plan called for states to transfer ownership and control over civil nuclear activities and materials to an international development agency. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled his Atoms for Peace plan, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The real heyday for such explorations was the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s. After India conducted a "peaceful" nuclear test in 1974, concerns grew that other countries could follow India's example and use their civilian nuclear program and plutonium reprocessing technologies to build nuclear weapons. Yet at the same time, countries wished to solve this problem within the context of the newly minted nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which sought to assure all states that they would be permitted to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards.

Out of such concerns, the first feasibility study on multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle was undertaken. The Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centres (RFCC) study of 1975-1977 was created to provide a forum for countries to examine the possibility of joining together to set up fuel cycle centers at selected sites. In keeping with contemporary concerns, the emphasis in this and other studies of the time was on the back end of the cycle, specifically reprocessing and plutonium containment. Although the RFCC study drew some favorable conclusions regarding the technical viability of such an endeavor, it also highlighted some potential problems, among them the risks of technology transfer and the interrelated difficulties of providing assurances of supply to all stakeholders, including making provisions for the possibility of host-country withdrawal or interference.

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