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.