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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Managing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Policy Implications of Expanding Global Access to Nuclear Power

Mary Beth Nikitin, Coordinator
Analyst in Nonproliferation

Anthony Andrews
Specialist in Energy and Energy Infrastructure Policy

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

After several decades of widespread stagnation, nuclear power is attracting renewed interest. New license applications for 30 reactors have been announced in the United States, and another 160 are under construction or planned globally. In the United States, interest appears driven, in part, by tax credits, loan guarantees, and other incentives in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, as well as by potential greenhouse gas controls that may increase the cost of fossil fuels. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Energy is spending several hundred million dollars per year to develop the next generation of nuclear power technology. 

Expanding global access to nuclear power, nevertheless, has the potential to lead to the spread of nuclear technology that could be used for nuclear weapons. Despite 30 years of effort to limit access to uranium enrichment, several undeterred states pursued clandestine nuclear programs, the A.Q. Khan black market network's sales to Iran and North Korea representing the most egregious examples. Concern over the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, combined with a growing consensus that the world must seek alternatives to dwindling and polluting fossil fuels, may be giving way to optimism that advanced nuclear technologies may offer proliferation resistance. 

Proposals offering countries access to nuclear power and thus the fuel cycle have ranged from a formal commitment by these countries to forswear sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology, to a de facto approach in which a state would not operate fuel cycle facilities but make no explicit commitment, to no restrictions at all. Countries joining the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) signed a statement of principles that represented a shift in U.S. policy by not requiring participants to forgo domestic fuel cycle programs. Whether developing states will find existing proposals attractive enough to forgo what they see as their "inalienable" right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes remains to be seen. 

GNEP has continued as an international forum under the Obama Administration, but the Bush Administration's plans for constructing nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling facilities in the United States have been halted. Instead, the Obama Administration is supporting fundamental research on a variety of potential waste management technologies. Other ideas for limiting the expansion of nuclear fuel cycle facilities include placing all enrichment and reprocessing facilities under multinational control, developing new nuclear technologies that would not produce weapons-usable fissile material, and developing a multinational waste management system. Various systems of international fuel supply guarantees, multilateral uranium enrichment centers and nuclear fuel reserves have also been proposed. 

Congress will have a considerable role in at least four areas of oversight related to fuel cycle proposals. The first is providing funding and oversight of U.S. domestic programs related to expanding nuclear energy in the United States. The second area is policy direction and/or funding for international measures to assure supply. A third set of policy issues may arise in the context of implementing the international component of GNEP or related initiatives. A fourth area in which Congress plays a key role is in the approval of nuclear cooperation agreements. Significant interest in these issues is expected to continue in the second session of the 111th Congress.

Date of Report: March 5, 2010
Number of Pages: 45
Order Number: RL34234
Price: $29.95

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