Russia and US as global nuclear waste collectors?
MOSCOW AND WASHINGTON
Against a backdrop of global efforts to address peacefully the concerns raised by Iran's nuclear power program, the US and Russia are proposing an international "partnership" for controlling the flow of weapons-grade uranium to those who might harbor military ambitions.Skip to next paragraph
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The plan, announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and included in President Bush's budget sent to Congress Monday, would provide energy-starved countries with the fuel they need for generating nuclear power, while taking back the dangerous waste created in its production.
But some experts and critics say the proposal raises many questions for Congress to address, and the science behind the idea of breaking down spent fuels is unproven and dangerous. In any case, they add, the initiative would do little to make the world safer in the case of proliferating nuclear power generation.
In its description of the "Global Nuclear Partnership," the Department of Energy says the fuel supply and handling aspect of the proposal would be addressed "once technologies are proven" for nuclear plant reprocessing.
"What seems rather fanciful about this project is that the fuel-supply aspect appears contingent on proving some highly advanced technology," says Daryl Kimball, executive director the Arms Control Association in Washington. "They're using this as a way to sell reprocessing technology rather than as a way to solve the problem of fuel supply, and that's troubling."
Other experts worry the proposal may simply be using heightened concerns over nuclear security and weapons of mass destruction as a way to get the US back into uranium-processing research - research the US gave up decades ago as uneconomical and dangerous.
"If the idea is to promote a sense of security at the same time that the development of large reactors to a long list of countries is promoted, then it's very misguided," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "They're trying to sell this as a nonproliferation initiative, but we shouldn't be so quick to cede that point."
The project, as described by President Putin, would confine the vulnerable stages of the nuclear fuel cycle - uranium enrichment and radioactive waste disposal - to a few specialized centers located in Russia, the US, and perhaps other countries such as France. That would plug a loophole in the current nuclear nonproliferation regime, allowing countries to enrich uranium on their own for "peaceful" purposes, which is the nub of the world community's current worries about Iran's intentions.
A significant problem with the proposal, according to nuclear experts in the US, is that the technology required for the plan to work remains unproven.
The idea of recycling or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has been around since the Ford administration, but was put on hold then and under the subsequent Carter administration.
"The US decided three decades ago that [reprocessing] was not economical and not helpful for nonproliferation," says Mr. Kimball. "This would constitute the US giving up the long-term policy of disavowing reprocessing technology."
Under the plan, a version of which has already been offered by Russia to Iran, access to civilian reactor technology would be expanded for those countries willing to comply with the rules.
"We propose setting up a network of nuclear cycle centers for enriching uranium, and ensuring equal access for all who desire to share in the work of developing nuclear technology," Mr. Putin said in his annual news conference. "We're talking about access without discrimination.... Russia is an obvious partner for resolving tasks of this kind, given the country's advanced nuclear power engineering, its scientific base, skilled personnel, and developed nuclear infrastructure," he said.
At a Saturday meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia voted with much of the world community to report Iran's suspected nuclear misconduct to the UN Security Council, but the resolution provided that any action be postponed for at least a month. Negotiations over Moscow's offer to transfer Iran's uranium enrichment to Russian facilities are set to resume on Feb. 16.