Nations Seek to Export Civilian Use of Nuclear Power

Nations Seek to Export Civilian Use of Nuclear Power

The United States recently gathered ministers and other senior officials from China, France, Japan and Russia to discuss the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and their vision for expanding the civilian use of nuclear energy globally. As a result of the summit, these nations issued a joint statement in support of GNEP. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Kingdom attended as observers. The Bush Administration originally proposed GNEP in 2006. Under the plan, nations with nuclear power would supply and fuel nuclear reactors for nations that agree to forego pursuit of nuclear technology. Once the fuel is used, supplying nations would remove it for eventual reprocessing. Portions would be used again as nuclear fuel.

Reprocessing uses liquid acid to dissolve irradiated nuclear fuel so that target ingredients can be separated. Proponents of GNEP see reprocessing as the solution to nuclear waste because once separated certain components can be reused. However, reprocessing results in intensely radioactive, toxic, thermally hot and difficult to contain waste. In 1957, a tank used to store this high-level waste exploded in Russia, contaminating 6,000 square miles. In the United States, liquid high-level waste from Cold War reprocessing presents the greatest contamination threat and most expensive cleanup challenges in the nuclear weapons complex.

In addition, reprocessing is the fundamental link between nuclear energy and a plutonium bomb. Worldwide, there is about 250 metric tons of separated plutonium, or the equivalent of 30,000 nuclear bombs. Under GNEP the risk of proliferation would be avoided by requiring the nations receiving nuclear fuel to refrain from developing uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Most of the nations currently proposing to supply the fuel already are in possession of nuclear weapons.

In the joint statement the five nations asserted "a common view that a long-term vision of the global nuclear fuel cycle cannot be achieved without broader cooperation and partnerships involving nations that currently utilize, or are planning to develop, civilian nuclear energy." They intend to hold a conference and foster broad based dialogue on the plan.

The United States Department of Energy has proposed a pilot GNEP program to revive reprocessing domestically and demonstrate the feasibility of their proposal. Domestic reprocessing was outlawed in 1977 by President Carter after India developed and tested a nuclear bomb from technology they received from the United States. Although the ban has since been lifted, the United States power industry has not resumed the practice, in large part because of the prohibitive costs. DOE requested $405 million in fiscal year 2008 to begin their pilot program.

Community groups believe that if it goes forward GNEP will endanger the global environment, encourage nuclear bomb-making around the world, squander U.S. taxpayers' money and deepen the nuclear waste problem.

DOE is accepting scoping comments on their proposed GNEP pilot program until June 4th. These comments will be used to determine the scope of their environmental impact analysis. Comments can be submitted by email to

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