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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 45, April 2000

US Decides Against Reprocessing Nuclear Fuel; US Uranium Processing Company under Scrutiny

On April 11, the US Energy Department announced plans to 'melt and dilute' - permanently dispose of - the spent nuclear fuel sent to its Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, rather than reprocess the fuel for reuse in the nuclear cycle. As an Energy Department statement explains, non-proliferation concerns were at the heart of the decision, which has been taken after a review begun in 1996: "The melt and dilute technology will directly convert spent fuel containing highly-enriched uranium [HEU], which is usable in nuclear weapons, into low-enriched uranium ingots. These ingots are well suited for geological disposal and are unattractive for weapons production." According to Energy Secretary Richardson: "The melt and dilute technology under development at SRS will further our efforts to reduce the danger from weapons of mass destruction… Also, it will reduce waste generation and provide a cost-effective, long-term way to manage…spent fuel." The move was heralded by anti-nuclear and environmentalist groups as important both in the US and the international context. In the assessment of Tom Clements, Executive Director of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), on April 11: "We congratulate Secretary Richardson for honouring DOE's earlier commitment [made by then-Secretary Hazel O'Leary in 1996] to the American people to pursue non-reprocessing options for this bomb-grade spent fuel… As the US moves to treat weapons-grade nuclear material as waste rather than as a valuable commodity to be introduced into commerce, foreign states will be encouraged to do the same."

Meanwhile, the company at the centre of a 1993 US-Russia agreement to blend down some 500 metric tons of Russian weapons-grade HEU for commercial reuse has been coming under renewed, critical scrutiny. The United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) was privatised in 1998, since when it has been plagued by the fall of uranium prices to well below the fixed-price the company is obliged to pay Russia. Last year, USEC asked the US Government for an emergency operating grant of $200 million; the appeal was rejected. In the assessment of non-proliferation analyst Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government (April 12): "The privatisation left a crucial national security initiative…to the whim of the private market… It was one of the most egregious national security blunders of the Clinton team." In April 13 testimony to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Commerce Committee, Under Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sought to place USEC's travails in context:

"In the post-Cold War context, it has always been understood that a private executive agent implementing the HEU Agreement with Russia could experience tensions between its commercial interests and the Government's immediate preferences. This is a perceptual tension to be managed. In the end, the Government will have its interests served, or take corrective steps. However, the complex intersection of Governmental and private interests is a fact of life driven by the large scale of resources needed to reverse Cold War build ups (HEU, plutonium, weapons complex). Much has been accomplished, and given the scale of the problems created over many years, much remains to be done."

Reports: 'Melt and dilute' the preferred alternative to treat DOE's spent fuel at Savannah River, US Energy Department Press Release R-00-098, April 11; Energy Department opts against reusing spent nuclear fuel, Environmental News Service, April 12; Trouble with uranium processing Co., Associated Press, April 12; Prepared statement of Under Secretary Ernest Moniz before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Commerce, April 13, 2000, US Department of Energy website (http://www.doe.gov); Lawmakers blast USEC privatisation deal, Reuters, April 13.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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