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Playing with Proliferation

Beyond the cost issue, GNEP could reverse a successful strategy against proliferation, say a variety of scientists, including Princeton’s von Hippel. He argues that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel creates too great a risk, even if the plutonium is mixed with small amounts of other materials that do not make good bomb fuel. Not only could plutonium from spent fuel fall into the wrong hands, opponents say, but reprocessing in the United States could encourage other countries to reprocess nuclear waste themselves, making their own by-products available for weapons.

Given that the United States gave up reprocessing in the mid-1970s for that very reason, von Hippel finds it ominous that now, with GNEP, the country could embrace it once more. “The United States has been extraordinarily successful for 30 years in opposing the spread of reprocessing to nonweapons states by making the argument ‘We don’t reprocess; you don’t need to either,’” he says. That’s part of the logic of the 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” which concluded that reprocessing as pursued by France, Russia, and Japan did not provide sufficient safeguards against proliferation. It also concluded that the prospect of a uranium shortage wouldn’t be a reason to move to reprocessing in the United States “for many years to come.”

It’s easy to see why the research community is delighted about GNEP. It represents a huge source of funds. It’s a loaves-and-fishes trick for the industrializing world, especially for bureaucrats who would like to redeem the predictions, made by their 1950s predecessors, of power “too cheap to meter.” But GNEP is not relevant to a revival of nuclear power. Utilities abandoned more than 100 reactor projects in the 1970s and ’80s, and only now – spurred by high fossil-fuel prices and a shift in public attitudes – are they thinking of trying again. A fancy fuel cycle meant to support a burgeoning commercial industry is useless if there is no commercial industry. What nuclear power needs is to get up and running soon, supplanting carbon-dioxide-emitting sources in an economical and boring way. Without that, nothing will follow.

Matthew L. Wald, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the New York Times , has written about the nuclear industry for 27 years.

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