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PRESIDENTIAL ACTIONS - A BRIEF HISTORY

By 1975 the first commercial reprocessing plant at West Valley, NY, had been shut down for modifications to double its size. The regulators called for complete seismic upgrades and the owners gave up. Another pilot-sized plant had been abandoned without operating. But a full-sized commercial reprocessing plant named Barnwell was under construction.

In a Sept. 25, 1976 speech in San Diego, Jimmy Carter raised concerns aboutproliferation and promised that he would stop Barnwell until it was"needed" and safe, and only ever allow it to operate if it were on a multi-national basis. Each criterion was a potential show-stopper, but the speech was taken as campaign rhetoric by those few that noticed it.

President Ford initiated a secret study to set a nonproliferation policy. Ford's statement was finally presented in a campaign speech at Portsmouth, Ohio, just five days before the 1976 election. He said that control of nuclear proliferation had to take precedence over commercial and national economic interests. He called for a delay of up to three years in starting the Barnwell reprocessing plant. However, all parties knew that delay was inevitable. A programmatic environmental impact statement was going into public hearings that could easily take two years. The "back end" of the Barnwell plant that was required to prepare the nuclear waste for disposal was the government's part, and it hadn't yet been designed, let alone built.

Some argue that it was Ford who actually stopped reprocessing, not Carter. Industry experts who analyzed the Ford statement concluded that it had been carefully constructed as a compromise between "go ahead" and "stop" alternatives. It was carefully worded so as to take a tough stance against proliferation and reprocessing. ("Reprocessing is no longer regarded as an inevitable step"). Yet it maintained the flexibility (if Ford were re-elected) to proceed with Barnwell, once the licensing and safeguards issues were successfully resolved.

Carter's statement was totally different in tone. It said that reprocessing should not proceed, not only in the U. S. but worldwide, because it was not essential for foreseeable economic or uranium resource purposes. Therefore, his advisors reasoned, since it added to proliferation risks, "it just didn't make any sense to allow reprocessing to proceed." The U. S. position was stated as firm and final, and it expressly included a plan to explain it to the other nuclear nations in order to convince them to adopt it as well.

President Carter said that his policy was designed to set an example to the rest of the nations of the world to turn away from technologies that could lead to further nuclear weapons proliferation. Some nations (particularly France, the United Kingdom and Japan) continued their programs to establish commercial reprocessing. However, U. S. pressure did affect a number of specific decisions by various governments, and also encouraged opposition parties and activist groups in these and other nations where nuclear energy became a political issue.

By the end of the Carter administration in 1981, an export law so stringent that it drastically reduced U.S. influence and its role in international nuclear commerce had been passed, and the nine-volume report of Carter's international study on alternative fuel cycles could be found gathering dust on countless office bookshelves. Funding for non-nuclear energy alternatives had been increased substantially, and nuclear power was known in the government as the "energy source of last resort."

In early 1982, President Reagan rescinded the Carter policy, allowed programmatic (as opposed to case-by-case) approvals for reprocessing of U.S. origin fuel by the Euratom nations and Japan, and even said that reprocessing could again be considered in the U. S. But by that time, all the remaining industrial momentum in the United States was gone, and no serious effort to revive commercial reprocessing has emerged since that time.

Commercial reprocessing is a reality in Europe and Japan, but its progress certainly has not been aided by any U. S. administration. In September 1993, President Clinton stated that it was the policy of the U. S. not to reprocess, but that we would not interfere in the programs of other nations. However, the U. S. has rigidly opposed any approaches for disposition of excess plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons in the U. S. or Russia that would imply any future consideration of reprocessing.


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