ALLIANCE FOR NUCLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY * COMMITTEE TO BRIDGE THE GAP * NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL * NUCLEAR CONTROL INSTITUTE * PEACE ACTION * PHYSICIANS FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY * UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS * WOMENS ACTION FOR NEW DIRECTIONS
OPPOSE SECTION 302, TITLE III, OF
THE NUCLEAR WASTE POLICY AMENDMENTS ACT OF 1999
July 20, 1999
We, the representatives of several arms control and non-proliferation organizations, are writing to express our strong opposition to Title III, Section 302, of S. 1287, the "Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1999," reported recently by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Section 302 would establish a new "Office of Spent Nuclear Fuel Research" in the Department of Energy. While we agree that a good deal of research and development still needs to be conducted on the disposal of nuclear waste, we object to the misguided nuclear reprocessing promotional objectives of Section 302 as a wasteful misallocation of resources toward inappropriate and dangerous technologies and a flagrant violation of U.S. non-proliferation policy.
Section 302 calls for the new Office to "identify promising technologies for the treatment, recycling, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste; conduct research and development activities for promising technologies," and "require research on advanced processing and separations." Indeed, the sponsor of the bill stated in a press release that the new Office "should develop alternatives for future congressional consideration, such as: reprocessing to extract uranium and plutonium." These efforts to promote spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium separation run contrary to more than two decades of U.S. non-proliferation policy.
Beginning with the Ford Administration, the United States has pursued an anti-plutonium policy. The present iteration of that policy, advanced by the Clinton Administration in September 1993, declares that "The United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes." [emphasis added] The policy further pledged that "the U.S. will seek to eliminate where possible the accumulation of stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium," as well as "explore means to limit the stockpiling of plutonium from civil nuclear programs." Thus, U.S. development of new means to separate plutonium would make it difficult or impossible to achieve these non-proliferation goals. U.S. diplomatic efforts to discourage reprocessing in Taiwan, South Korea, and in other sensitive regions will completely lack credibility if the United States itself undertakes a large-scale reprocessing R&D program.
To make matters worse, Section 302 would "require research on both reactor- and accelerator-based transmutation systems." Despite the claims of its proponents, all transmutation schemes are essentially large-scale spent fuel reprocessing and recycling programs. For instance, the Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW) system being pushed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory is a slightly modified version of the defunct Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a metal-fueled plutonium breeder reactor. The system would require processing all U.S. spent fuel to separate the plutonium and other "minor" actinides (neptunium, americium and curium) from the vast majority of highly radioactive fission products that provide spent fuel with a self-protecting radiation barrier. The separated actinides would then have to be fabricated into fuel, irradiated in accelerator-driven spallation sources, and then repeatedly reprocessed and recycled. These are large-scale, bulk-handling processes which will present costly and difficult safeguards and security challenges.
Accelerator transmutation proponents claim that their process is "proliferation-resistant" because the spent fuel is processed using "electrorefining," which does not separate plutonium from other actinides and a few rare-earth fission products. However, numerous reviews have demonstrated that this process can be easily modified to produce purified, weapons-usable material. Even if the plutonium is not purified, the residual fission product contamination is minor and would not provide an effective barrier to diversion or theft. Finally, the minor actinides themselves are now understood to be weapons-usable materials, so their presence will not reduce the attractiveness of the electrorefining product.
Finally, the new Office would "be authorized to fund international collaborators when they bring unique capabilities not available in the United States and their host country is unable to provide for their support." We are concerned that this provision would encourage, and perhaps even subsidize, overseas reprocessing and other plutonium-separation technologies.
As the recent Chinese espionage scandal made clear, DOE cannot effectively safeguard even its most sensitive nuclear weapons technologies. DOEs record for safeguarding weapons-sensitive, civilian nuclear technology is a problem as well. DOE inadvertently sold an entire reprocessing plant for bomb-grade uranium to an Idaho scrap dealer a few years ago. In addition, our nations most advanced technology to separate weapons-grade plutonium was supplied by DOE to Japans civilian nuclear program earlier this decade, in violation of U.S. law controlling the transfer of "sensitive nuclear technology." There is no reason to believe that a new Office of Spent Nuclear Fuel Research, explicitly mandated to assist other nations in plutonium separation, will prove any more effective in preventing transfers that would gravely threaten U.S. national security.
We urge you to reject Section 302 when you take up the nuclear waste bill. Representatives of our organizations would be glad to meet with you to discuss these matters. Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Nuclear Control Institute
Frank von Hippel
(for himself, not the institution)
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Natural Resources Defense Council
Union of Concerned Scientists
Gordon S. Clark
Alliance for Nuclear Accountability
Womens Action for New Directions
Committee to Bridge the Gap
What's New Home Page