Opposition to recycling used nuclear fuel in the U.S. centres around the assumption that if the U.S. resumes recycling, an activity it stopped doing in the 1970s, then that will open the floodgates worldwide. Countries that allegedly followed the U.S. lead in the 1970s will begin their own recycling programs. And, if recycling is based on aqueous (i.e., separative) reprocessing methods like PUREX, UREX+, or COEX, then—say those who oppose recycling—it is a proliferation threat.
This notion—I’ll call it the Floodgates hypothesis—is asserted as if it were a natural law. The U.S. resumes recycling, and others naturally follow the lead, like night naturally follows day.
How resilient is this hypothesis to testing? Let’s see.
A brief look at the actual history of recycling reveals that the countries to whom recycling made economic sense made use of it regardless of what the U.S. did. France is of course the supreme example. Of the fifty-eight nuclear reactors in the French civilian fleet, 21 are burning reycled fuel as I write this. A further six are capable of it. Another one is authorized to burn it, and the Flamanville 3 EPR, which I visited last week, will also be capable.
Areva, the French company that, along with manufacturing reactors and their components, handles the front- and back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, provides fuel recycling services for Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Japan. Under the service agreements with each of these countries, Areva transports used fuel from their reactors and recycles it in France. All of those countries are non-weapons states under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
Of these countries, only Japan has decided to build its own recycling plant, which, when it is up and running, will thereby obviate the need to ship used fuel to France. Areva is helping Japan build the plant, and is training its operators.
In other words, we have a Floodgates scenario right in front of us. What does this experience tell us? The Floodgates hypothesis would predict that Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, and Japan can, because they are engaged in nuclear recycling, turn that activity into weapons programs.
Well, every one of these countries except Japan would have to dramatically change the terms of their actual recycling arrangements in order to pull that off. As I mentioned, Areva does the actual recycling, at its La Hague plant, just east of Flamanville along the channel coast. I also visited that plant the other day, along with a delegation of nuclear experts from the U.S. While we were there we watched the fuel assembly from an Italian boiling water reactor being hoisted out of its shipping canister (don’t worry—we were behind a radiation-proof window).
If Italy decided to start a weapons program, it would have to figure out another way to get the plutonium out of its used fuel. It would first have to move its recycling capability onto its own soil. La Hague is pretty well protected: when you pass through the initial security perimeter and look out at the formidable barriers of barbed wire, you get an idea of what it feels like to be an inmate in a super-max prison. Video cameras, remotely operated by Euratom, a.k.a. the European Atomic Energy Community, monitor certain areas, such as the unloading bay where we saw the Italian BWR fuel. These circumstances make it difficult for anybody to involve La Hague in a proliferation scheme. Unless you think you could arrange some hell of an inside job, you’d be better off taking plutonium out of your used fuel on your own soil, in your own facility.
Proponents of the floodgates hypothesis actually slip in another assumption: that the international rules governing the civilian nuclear trade will relax as more countries take up recycling. This would have to happen in order for prospective proliferators to actually be able to extract plutonium from their used fuel. The prospective proliferator would have to either acquire this technology from another country that already has it, or develop the technology on its own. The second alternative is open to any country on earth, NPT signatory or not, so I’ll leave it alone. Let’s assume the aspiring proliferator opts to acquire recycling technology from another country. The Floodgates hypothesis assumes that other country will transfer the technology to the proliferator.
How likely is that? International civilian nuclear trade is governed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG is made up of 45 member countries. Decisions on the terms of trade are made by consensus. Today, trade in recycling technologies remains restricted to a small group of NSG country members. If a country outside of that group wants to acquire recycling technology and know-how, the NSG as a group would have to approve it. Good luck with that.
Proponents of the Floodgates hypothesis tacitly assume that a U.S. decision to resume recycling will also be accompanied by a general relaxing of the NSG rules. There is really no reason to assume that. In fact, going by the recent U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, which brought about an NSG exemption in the case of India, I’d say there is no chance the rules will relax.
This leaves Japan as the only real current Floodgates candidate. As I mentioned, Japan is building its own recycling facility, with Areva’s help. Regardless of the actual technology that will be employed in the Japanese plant, the plant will be a civilian facility, subject to the same international monitoring and safeguards as the recycling and enrichment plants I visited in France last week. This means that the only scenario in which Japan could misuse the technology in a weapons program is the breakout scenario (see article).
Nothing is impossible, but there are things that are extremely improbable. So improbable, in fact, that we can safely just discount them. Japan breaking out of the NPT is one of them.
Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy are all examples of what we can expect in the current nuclear renaissance. Fuel recycling gives them fuel assurances that fit with their energy policies. The fact that the actual recycling is being done in France does not appear to be an issue of national pride in these countries. Recycling makes economic sense, as does having France do the recycling. It’s a simple economic decision.
If the U.S. does get back into the recycling game, there is no proliferation threat.