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.