GNEP’s quiet demise: atomic clock ticks as another decision is delayed

Go to DOE’s GNEP internet address (www.gnep.gov) and you get a drab intro to DOE’s nuclear energy program. The acronym GNEP is nowhere to be found, nor is any explanation of what has become of one of the most ambitious, far-reaching, and problematic undertakings since the dawn of the nuclear age. That’s because the program is cancelled.

For those who have already forgotten, GNEP was a U.S.-led international effort to manage the civilian nuclear fuel cycle. Proliferation-sensitive activities like enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel would be restricted to a small group of countries, called Fuel Cycle States. Fuel Cycle States would “lease” fresh reactor fuel to the rest of the world (made up of Fuel Recipient States), and would take back spent fuel, thereby relieving Recipient States of the expense and bother of dealing with the front and back ends of the fuel cycle. For more detail, click here.

I predicted in February that the back-end of the program was dead (see article). The back-end involved reprocessing spent fuel, an activity from which the U.S. had refrained since the mid-1970s. Under GNEP, Fuel Cycle States would dispose of the “sensitive material” in spent light water reactor fuel by burning it in fast-neutron reactors. Despite heroic communication efforts by its supporters, GNEP’s opponents carried the day, pointing up the expense, technological uncertainties, and proliferation risks of fast reactor–based reprocessing.

So now what? Twenty-eight nations signed onto GNEP. Twenty-eight more were candidates to join. The latter included the United Arab Emirates, which, in a major departure from the nuclear policies of certain of its neighbors in the Middle East, was explicit in signalling its absolute intent to refrain from both enrichment and reprocessing.

Turning the UAE’s stated peaceful intent into reality requires a country to lease it the fresh reactor fuel, and a country to take back the spent fuel. Otherwise nothing changes, and a new Iran, North Korea, or Syria can emerge, claiming its sovereign right to engage in any part of the civilan nuclear fuel cycle.

The UAE is a model of how civilian nuclear cooperation should look as the world revisits the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next year. For this reason, GNEP’s principles from the viewpoint of Recipient States—i.e., fuel leasing and spent fuel take-back—must be preserved in whatever program succeeds it.

GNEP signatories also included Canada and South Korea. Both countries were initially classified as Recipient States, and neither liked that classification. That problem isn’t going away just because people don’t like fast reactors.

So the cancellation of GNEP just defers a lot of excruciating but absolutely necessary international diplomacy. Meanwhile, the world continues to grapple with the incongruities of the NPT—in the form of the crises over Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The atomic clock is ticking.

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