The Reprocessing Dilemma
By the time Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency in early 1977 the effort to close the nuclear fuel cycle by establishing reprocessing and using plutonium fuel on a commercial basis was already a deeply troubled undertaking. Its troubles arose in part from problems inherent in the technology and in part from the fact that here again the attempt at commercialization was premature. Success in reprocessing as a step in producing plutonium for bombs had misled the Atomic Energy Commission into believing that reprocessing as a step in the commercial fuel cycle was sure to succeed too. But this was simply wrong.
By the mid to late 1970s three attempts at commercial reprocessing had gone awry. The first, the Nuclear Fuel Services plant at West Valley, New York, had been shut down since 1972 and was not to reopen. The second, the General Electric plant at Morris, Illinois, built to an innovative and untried design, had been declared inoperable in 1974, before reprocessing the first ton of fuel. The third, the Allied-General plant at Barnwell, South Carolina, was mired in complex proceedings related to licensing and was in need of two costly high-level waste and plutonium product solidification units, which the owners were seeking to have built at government expense as new technology demonstration facilities. So when on April 7, 1977, President Carter, with the aim of reducing the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation around the world, announced the indefinite deferral of reprocessing and commercial breeder development, he was in effect applying the brakes to an undertaking that was not going anywhere without a lot of federal help.
The leaders of the nuclear industry deplored the president's action as the ultimate insult to would-be commercial reprocessors beset by federal regulatory and policy instability. There had indeed been such instability, but the fundamental question confronting the industry was whether, under even the most sympathetic federal policies, reprocessing was possible as a strictly private, unsubsidized commercial venture.