Efforts to Limit Fuel Cycle Capabilities Falter

By Pomper, Miles A. | Arms Control Today, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Efforts to Limit Fuel Cycle Capabilities Falter


Pomper, Miles A., Arms Control Today


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.)

GNEP

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. …

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Efforts to Limit Fuel Cycle Capabilities Falter
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