In 1976 U.S. president Gerald Ford announced that the U.S. would stop reprocessing used civilian nuclear fuel. The trigger for this decision was of course political: the announcement was on October 28, and in five days there would be a general election in which Ford was the Republican presidential candidate. But why would such an arcane issue attain such prominence that a presidential candidate would feel obliged to stake out his position during a pivotal election? And why that particular, anti-reprocessing, position?
Ford’s position was the culmination of two years of congressional pressure on Ford as a result of India’s “surprise” test, in 1974, of a plutonium bomb. India had made the plutonium in a research reactor that Canada had given it in the late 1950s; it got the plutonium out of the irradiated target materials by means of an extraction method allegedly developed solely in India. The test was India’s way of showing arch-enemies China and Pakistan that India was not to be fooled with. India felt internationally isolated and alone against these enemies, especially after president Nixon’s strong diplomatic overtures to both China (the intermediary was Pakistan) and the USSR.
Congress was able to exert pressure on Ford because it was experiencing a revival of sorts in its influence on U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, which had forced Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974. Watergate had revealed decades of executive branch unilateralism in foreign affairs. Post-Watergate Washington was therefore full of new, and newly dusted off, theories about congress’s role in shaping foreign policy. Nixon’s successor Ford had himself been a congressman before Nixon appointed him Vice President in late 1973.
Ford’s 1976 decision to stop reprocessing was based on the assumption that if the U.S. refrained from the activity then other countries would follow its example and refrain from reprocessing their own used nuclear fuel. A general worldwide halt to reprocessing would thereby stem nuclear proliferation.
Here are his words:
… the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation… .
In other words, reprocessing leads to proliferation.
That is a pretty simplistic argument. The fact that India was the trigger for the U.S. to publicly get out of reprocessing suggests that Ford and the congress felt that had the U.S. gotten out of reprocessing earlier then India might not have tested its plutonium bomb (or made it in the first place). The circumstances India was in in 1974—alone and diplomatically isolated from countries that could have provided support against enemies on its western and northeastern borders—make this assumption on the part of the U.S. seem naive and almost divorced from reality. India tested a plutonium bomb in 1974 not because the U.S. had not yet made a big show out of halting the reprocessing of used nuclear power reactor fuel. India tested a bomb to show China and Pakistan—and possibly, according to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, certain domestic constituencies—what it was capable of.
The notion that other countries would blindly follow the U.S. lead on reprocessing has shown remarkable longevity over the years. If it were anything but a political hypothesis it would have been discarded before it ever became a policy. Anybody could have understood India’s motivation in 1974 and explained it to the president. And subsequent developments in civilian nuclear energy around the world showed that countries will reprocess and recycle nuclear fuel if they feel it is worth their while. France, the UK, Russia, and Japan are good examples. France in particular ramped up reprocessing in the same year the U.S. decided to halt it.
Remember how Ford explained the decision to halt reprocessing: “the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation.” Is there sound reason? What can we say after 35 years?
In the years after the U.S. announced its reprocessing halt, four countries—South Africa, India (again), Pakistan, and North Korea—have built or tested nuclear weapons. Four more began efforts to develop nuclear explosive: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran. Of these eight countries, only three—Pakistan, India, and North Korea—have developed plutonium weapons. None of these used plutonium from dedicated power reactors; all made plutonium in dedicated production machines.
Most important, none of these eight countries based decisions regarding their weapons programs on whether the U.S. does or does not reprocess used reactor fuel. U.S. action or non-action in this area is simply irrelevant. Nor did any of them base their nuclear decisions on whether, for example, France was reprocessing.
Which begs the question: why does the U.S. continue with its anti-reprocessing policy even with decades of history proving it has been totally irrelevant to proliferant states’ decisions to develop weapons? The answer: bureaucratic momentum. The decision to halt reprocessing was taken at a time when plutonium was seen as the ultimate route to a bomb, and when the congress was reasserting itself in foreign affairs. That gave rise to bureaucracies, which after formation can develop a life of their own. The U.S. government is full of bureaucratic fiefdoms that know how to survive. Sometimes they survive by playing on fear: in this case fears of proliferation. The fact that the arguments justifying the fears are based on non-sequiturs and have been contradicted by the real world is secondary. Fear is a common rhetorical tool in politics.