Irony rules in the U.S. anti-proliferation community

The U.S. president, struggling to restore some semblance of maturity at the top of the nuclear regulatory commission (NRC), recently nominated an anti-proliferation activist to replace the outgoing Gregory Jaczko. This nomination is significant because it says a lot about what guides nuclear policy at the highest level of the U.S. government. The nominee, Allison Macfarlane, was a member of the president’s blue ribbon committee on nuclear waste, which recently recommended doing basically nothing about the U.S. used power reactor fuel inventory. Don’t put it at Yucca Mountain, and for heaven’s sake don’t recycle it. The U.S. has, as a matter of policy since the Ford presidency, abstained from recycling on the grounds that it somehow constitutes a proliferation threat.

Did Dr. Macfarlane influence that recommendation? Judging by a recent article she co-wrote for the magazine Nature, I would say she at least supported it. In that article, co-written with Frank von Hippel among others, Dr. MacFarlane advocated that Great Britain simply bury all of its plutonium.

The really disappointing thing is that this nomination says that U.S. nuclear policy from the top down is straight out of the Jimmy Carter playbook. Aside from the fact that it has had absolutely zero influence on the proliferation decisions of other countries, U.S. abstinence from reprocessing has allowed Russia to become the number one supplier of most of the strategically vital radioisotopes on which the U.S. depends (not including Mo-99 and Co-60 of course—Canada is America’s main supplier of those isotopes).

This is a massive irony, and the anti-proliferation community doesn’t seem to realize it.

I mean, think of it. Canada is America’s Number One supplier of Mo-99, and our production of this isotope depends totally on the U.S. supplying us with high-enriched uranium (HEU) so we can make it efficiently; see article. This keeps Canadian and American health care costs from rising even further.

Now, HEU is the essential component of any nuclear weapons program, whether the program is based on uranium or plutonium. This is of course not to say there is anything suspect in the commercial relationship between Canada and the U.S., in which the U.S. supplies HEU to Canada so Canada can make vital medical isotopes. As I have stressed many times, mere possession of sensitive material or equipment does not make a proliferation threat. Canada has never had a nuclear weapons program, and never will. The existence of a proliferation threat depends entirely on who possesses sensitive equipment or materials. The Netherlands hosts a uranium enrichment facility. So do Iran and North Korea. Nobody is worried about the Netherlands.

The U.S. policy of abstaining from reprocessing is useless symbolism that has only handed important commercial opportunities to the U.S.’s commercial adversaries. It has had absolutely no influence on military adversaries’ decisions to develop nuclear weapons. I may be wrong, but the nomination of Macfarlane sure looks like the U.S. will continue playing out of Jimmy Carter’s playbook.

8 comments for “Irony rules in the U.S. anti-proliferation community

  1. Tim
    May 26, 2012 at 19:34

    I haven’t been following this recently that closely but did Ottawa sign a backup agreement with Russia to get HEU if the US cuts us off.

  2. Steve Aplin
    May 26, 2012 at 19:44

    Tim, Nordion signed an agreement with Russia in 2010 (see http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/canadian-imports-russian-heu-criticized-nuke-security-grounds/).

    Most if not all the lobbying of the US Congress to give us an exemption under the Schumer Amendment has been done by Nordion.

  3. EL
    May 26, 2012 at 20:38

    What is it that counts as an activist to you … anybody who talks about nuclear proliferation as a concern?

    She’s not anti-nuclear, and she’s not a stooge of the industry … exactly what you would want from an independent regulator! By all accounts, she welcomes opposing points of view and discussion, and takes a consensus based approach to decision making and analysis, which would be a welcome change from Jazco (who ruled by unilaterialism and emergency fiat). No ironies here, but learning from past mistakes.

    Her colleagues speak clearly of her qualifications and management style:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-waste-expert-tapped-as-top

    She will likely move the ball forward on the waste issue … whether it’s recycling, deep geologic storage, or the status quo (keeping it on site for someone else to deal with). Given the previous and very public problems at the agency, I would hazard to guess Obama consulted with many of the parties involved (the roll out suggests as much), and she is probably as close to a consensus candidate we are likely to get.

    This doesn’t mean everyone is going to be happy with her, and why should they (she will often be the messenger of bad news for the industry). Why is this confusing? This doesn’t mean she is wrong, it doesn’t mean she gets 5 votes (instead of 1), and it doesn’t mean the industry doesn’t have to live up to the best possible practices. Someone has to be in charge, and it’s the person who understands the broader mandate and the decision making process of the Commission who will likely do the best job. She seems qualified to me (and her confirmation hearing will likely show as much).

  4. Steve Aplin
    May 26, 2012 at 21:00

    EL, of course she would be just one vote, just like Jaczko. He wasn’t able to hold up Vogtle or Sumner with his votes against those projects. I don’t know what votes are upcoming on the issues of enrichment plants or reprocessing, but she did her best to raise fears about the latter — the article she co-wrote with von Hippel et al led off with “Recycling plutonium is dangerous and costly” — so we should expect her to be a Nay on those if and when they come up.

    Sure, I think activist is a fair label. She has an agenda.

    While she and the rest of the anti-proliferation crowd were wringing their hands over safeguarded reactor plutonium, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, and Saddam’s Iraq were acquiring uranium enrichment equipment.

  5. May 27, 2012 at 11:04

    @EL

    I am not sure where you get your information about how the US government functions. First of all there is NOTHING in the governing legislation for the NRC that gives it any decision making or decision influencing role in determining US policy with regard to used nuclear fuel storage. When the agencies that do have that role make a decision on a particular policy and location, the NRC has the role of evaluating the safety of tha specific location and the technical details of the designed facility.

    Choosing a used nuclear fuel policy specialist to head the technical, safety focused regulator is a waste of talent and imposes a huge risk for saddling the NRC with another boss who is confused about the roles and responsibilities of her agency. That is a recipe for yet another series of frustrating Congressional hearings and yet another period of inaction or excessive delays by an agency with a key role in saving human society from the risks of climat change.

    • EL
      May 29, 2012 at 18:38

      NRC has a number of different activities in the “Waste Management Arena”:

      http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/regulatory/risk-informed/rpp/waste-arena.html

      It’s a bit more comprehensive and collaborative than you have described. When a budget is prepared in the House, OMB does not create policy (but their evaluation criteria is central to the policy making process). The same with the NRC. They have input and specific responsibilities in rulemaking, licensing, and oversight in several areas of radioactive waste: Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation, High-Level Waste Repository, and Low-Level Waste and Decommissioning. They’ve conducted reviews of dry-cask storage systems, spent fuel dry storage facilities, review criteria and risk sensitivity studies (based on performance criteria and technical feasibility) on high-level repositories, input to stakeholders involved in Blue Ribbon Commission and America’s Nuclear Future, risk-informed and performance-based analysis on alternate models with licensees and stakeholders on low level waste (including waste incidental to reprocessing), decommissioning on case-by-case basis, and more.

      If you think this is not the case, I would be interested in hearing more and what role you think the Commission has in waste management concerns: from risk-based evaluation criteria, probabilistic assessment, performance standards, licensing, decommissioning, assistance to other agencies in Government and Commissions, and more.

  6. May 28, 2012 at 15:21

    HEU is the essential component of any nuclear weapons program, whether the program is based on uranium or plutonium.

    HEU was not essential to the Nagasaki bombing, nor to North Korea’s successful bomb quest.

    • Steve Aplin
      May 28, 2012 at 15:47

      ah, I was hoping someone would notice that. We really don’t know every detail about Fat Man, do we? A.H. Snell, spectroscopy expert from U of Toronto who worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, told an interviewer he recalled a whirlwind visit from Oppenheimer in which Oppenheimer talked about measuring the rates of fission and capture in pure uranium metal, destined for Fermi’s pile in Chicago. What was the isotopic composition of the pure uranium metal? That did not come up.

      The Henry Smyth report on the Manhattan Project also didn’t really go into the composition of the fuel for Hanford B, and didn’t talk about targets. For lots of Pu-239, they would have wanted (1) lots of neutrons and (2) not so much U-235 in the fuel/target material. Did Hanford B run on natural uranium? Did it have target ports?

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