by A. David Rossin
Dr. A. David Rossin is a Center Affiliated Scholar, Center for International
Security and Arms Control, Stanford University. He was President of the
American Nuclear Society (1992-93) and served as Assistant Secretary for
Nuclear Energy, USDOE, in 1986-87. Prior to this he was Director of the Nuclear
Safety Analysis Center at EPRI and, directed and conducted research on energy
and environmental problems at Commonwealth Edison Co. and Argonne National
"The Clinton administration has accepted the
reasoning of the Carter years. This rigidity...undermined
our ability to work effectively with other nations toward disposition of
excess nuclear weapons."
1. NUCLEAR POWER AND THE FUEL CYCLE
The world really found out about the energy in the nucleus of the
atom when two atomic bombs ended World War II. But even as the historic
Manhattan Project developed its fearsome weapons, scientists and engineers like
Enrico Fermi, Glenn Seaborg and Walter Zinn were thinking about how the energy
of the atom could be harnessed for peaceful use. Within fifteen years
electricity had begun to flow from nuclear power plants, but the technology has
always carried the fear of, and the relationship to, the mushroom cloud.
From its inception in the 1940's, nuclear power as conceived by the United
States had a closed fuel cycle. Uranium would be mined and milled, enriched in
its fissionable isotope U-235 from the 0.7% found in nature, manufactured into
fuel and burned in reactors to generate electricity. As it burned, some of the
uranium would be converted to plutonium. Then the spent fuel would be removed
and shipped to a central plant where it would be dissolved and reprocessed
chemically. The unburned uranium and plutonium would be separated and could be
recycled in new fuel. The radioactive fission products would be buried as
By the mid-1970's, the state of the art in nuclear energy involved
water-cooled nuclear reactors fueled by uranium enriched to 3 - 4% U-235.
(Weapons were made with 93% enriched uranium or purified plutonium.) After
generating power for three years or more, the spent fuel would be removed. It
would contain very radioactive fission products, less than 1% U-235, and 1 to
2% plutonium. When discharged as spent fuel, as much as 40% of the energy
would be coming from fission of plutonium atoms and the rest from the
Ideally, the plutonium would be saved to use as fuel for breeder reactors,
which could burn it more efficiently and also make more new plutonium fuel than
they would consume. Recycling of fuel containing plutonium in conventional
reactors was regarded as an essential steppingstone before commercial breeder
reactors. While the energy community saw the breeder as a necessary part of
the long-term energy supply mix, there was sharp disagreement. Environmental
groups saw the breeder as a danger. An unlimited source of energy, they
feared, would mean more energy use and waste, leading to more global
environmental degradation and also opening new risks for proliferation of
2. THE WORLD NUCLEAR SCENE IN 1975
The U. S. led the world in numbers and efficiency of nuclear power plants. The
chemistry of wartime reprocessing had been adapted to the commercial fuel
cycle, and experimental breeder reactors had furnished experience for the
design and start of construction of a commercial-size demonstration plant. The
European nations, Russia and Japan were building nuclear power plants and
looking ahead to breeder reactors for the future. In 1974 the world was facing
an energy crisis, dominated by a Middle East cartel that controlled the supply
and world prices of oil.
Proliferation had always been a concern, and extensive research had been
done on safeguarding plutonium from diversion. Technologists knew that
they did not have answers to every possible threat, but they felt confident
that they could design against any conceivable danger. The conventional wisdom
was that plutonium separated from commercial reactor fuel could not be used to
make nuclear weapons. But weapons designers and nuclear physicists recognized
that it was physically possible for almost any mix of plutonium isotopes to
have nuclear explosive properties.
The facts were classified SECRET, but the U. S. had actually exploded a
device made of "reactor-grade plutonium" at the Nevada Test site in 1962. This
confirmed the fears of specialists at the Arms Control and
Disarmament Agency. Its very existence further elevated concerns about
reprocessing among political advisers to both President Ford and candidate
Carter. (Actually, the 1962 test was not decisive. See Sec. 4.2 below.)
On May 17, 1974, there was a nuclear explosion in India. India proved to the
world that her scientists and engineers could match those of the six nuclear
nations. India had refused to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,
calling it "discriminatory" because it differentiated between the six nuclear
weapons nations and all the rest. India said its interest was for massive
construction projects rather than weapons. She expected that her test would
make her a member of that select nuclear club. It did not happen. The U. S.
and the others did not want to reward any nation for going nuclear. To welcome
India for testing might just defeat the real objective of preventing further
The Indian explosion caused an agonizing reappraisal of paths to
proliferation. The nuclear supplier nations formed a secret group. The U.S.
put pressure on proposed French and German nuclear deals that would
include enrichment or reprocessing facilities for Pakistan, South Korea,
Taiwan and Brazil. Congress began work on bills that would tighten the
conditions for U. S. nuclear exports. The Ford administration carried out a
secret study, and five days before the 1976 election President Ford ordered a hold on startup of the new
reprocessing plant until issues involving safeguards and nonproliferation could
The basic concern was that separated plutonium would provide the key
ingredient for making an atomic bomb. Reprocessing plants do produce
separated plutonium. The issue that emerged was whether or not
reprocessing should be permitted to proceed in certain countries, or
3. THE CARTER POLICY
On April 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would
defer indefinitely the reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel. He stated
that after extensive examination of the issues, he had reached the conclusion
that this action was necessary to reduce the serious threat of nuclear weapons
proliferation, and that by setting this example, the U. S. would encourage
other nations to follow its lead.
President Carter's Executive Order also announced that the U. S. would
sponsor an international examination of alternative fuel cycles, seeking to
identify approaches which would allow nuclear power to continue without adding
to the risk of nuclear proliferation. More than thirty nations participated
over almost three years. But no new magic answer could be found.
Some other nations went ahead with reprocessing and breeder development,
but high costs and loss of political support delayed plans in many nuclear
projects around the world. The U. S. never regained its technological lead in
nuclear energy development, its own nuclear power program had already gone from
orders to cancellations, and the dream of long-term future energy security from
breeder reactors faded away. The three years of uncertainty about the future
had wiped away further prospects for private investments in the nuclear fuel
cycle. Today, twenty years later, all U.S.
spent fuel remains in storage at each plant where
it was used.
4. AN EXAMINATION OF THE REASONING
4.1 Diversion Of Plutonium from Reprocessing Plants
Argument: The key issue driving the policy was the threat of proliferation by
diversion of plutonium from the civilian fuel cycle. U. S. policymakers were
dubious that any safeguards regime could prevent diversion of plutonium for
Counter: If a nation really wanted the facility for secure energy supply, it
would have the incentive to permit international monitoring. Accuracy of
measurements was improving with experience, and the combination of careful
material control and physical security could preclude actual diversion.
Discussion: In any large chemical process facility, quantities and flows
have to be measured to control and account for material. In every
measurement there is bound to be some uncertainty. Mathematical formulas used
to quantify uncertainty showed that in a large plant, the uncertainty would
exceed many kilograms of plutonium every month: enough to build several bombs
per year. Also, the possibility of clandestine diversion could allow a
government to obtain plutonium in weapons quantities without being detected.
On the other hand, officials involved with policy did not accept engineering
explanations of how difficult diversion would actually be, nor how serious the
political dangers of such an act would become.
4.2 Use of "Reactor-Grade" Plutonium for Nuclear Weapons
Argument: Any pure plutonium, regardless of isotopic mix, can be made to
explode. Therefore, any process that separates plutonium adds directly to
proliferation risk. Since commercial reprocessing separates plutonium, it
therefore should not be permitted.
Counter: Even before the 1970's it was known by experts that it was
possible to make an explosive nuclear device from a wide range of mixtures of
plutonium isotopes. Plutonium-239 is the isotope of choice for weapons.
Reactor-grade plutonium is rich in the heavier isotopes (Pu-240, 241 and 242)
and is not the material of choice for weapons.
The secret is no secret. It's all in college textbooks. "Production
reactors" like those in the U. S. at Hanford and Savannah River had one
purpose: to make weapons-grade plutonium. Target slugs of natural uranium were
taken out after 10 to 16 weeks. After that time, the undesirable heavier
isotopes of plutonium really start building up. Power reactor fuel spends 3 to
6 years in the reactor core, building up large concentrations of the heavy
isotopes, particularly Pu-240, that make weapons design more difficult.
The problem for the weapon designer is that Pu-240 and 242 release neutrons
rapidly all the time, even before a critical mass is reached. These neutrons
cause premature ignition and unpredictable blast yield. Such plutonium could
still produce a nuclear explosion large enough to cause serious destruction,
although to equal Hiroshima would require more complex design.
Also, some of these isotopes give off more heat, requiring special cooling and
causing storage problems if weapons are to be kept ready for use. However,
once the decision is made to have a serious nuclear military force, the cost of
the plutonium becomes only a minor part of the huge cost of warheads, bases,
bombers and missiles, maintenance and command structure. With this level of
national commitment at stake, why would a nation use plutonium that would make
a weapon which is not highly reliable?
Most important to advanced nations, weapons are manufactured and assembled by
hand, and heavy isotopes give off enough radiation that highly skilled workers
would quickly reach allowable exposure limits, or face serious health risks if
they continued to work. An advanced nation with commercial reprocessing could
not accept such radiation risks, but a rogue nation or terrorists would not let
radiation standards interfere (like the bomb builders in Tom Clancy's "Sum of
Discussion: It is not proper to argue that certain governments which may
want nuclear weapons desperately, will not (or have not!) tried almost any
possible route to get them. Efficiency, reliability and cost have not always
been decisive factors. But these factors would be vitally important for an
advanced industrial society if its objective were to build an arsenal of
military weapons to defend their nation or to attack another.
Previously classified information which showed that a nuclear explosion had
been achieved at the Nevada Test Site in 1962 using "reactor-grade"
plutonium was revealed on a limited basis in 1976. It had a small yield, it
was an "explosive device" and not a bomb, and the purpose of the test was to
verify physics parameters and not to verify that reactor-grade plutonium would
explode. However, it impressed those who were told about it.
The important engineering and reliability reasons that had led all nations away
from this highly irradiated material were discounted by Carter's advisors. The
theoretical possibility was enough to drive their thinking to the conclusion
that all stocks of separated plutonium had to be eliminated.
Nuclear experts generally took the position that a number of more
attractive routes to nuclear weapons existed, and that these were the areas
that called for real concern and action. But other voices entered the
top-level debate. The late Albert Wohlstetter was a highly regarded
consultant to the Department of Defense and Arms Control and Disarmament
Agency. He wrote about possible clandestine diversion of separated
reactor-grade plutonium from a reprocessing plant or stockpiles. The
scenarios involved advance preparation of all manufacturing capability and
weapons components, explosives and detonators. Then, if the right amount of
plutonium could be diverted, fabrication of a plutonium bomb could be done in
such a short time that there would not be timely warning for diplomatic actions
to prevent the emergence of a new nuclear weapons nation.
Even the fact that eliminating reprocessing would only affect one possible
route to proliferation, and that others were easier to conceal, cheaper and
more reliable, did not deter the Carter strategists from their final narrow
policy choice. This rigid policy carried serious downside risks of greater
long-term energy dependence on oil and gas, as well as coal. And with the
implementation of this policy America's technological lead in nuclear energy
and its influence and credibility with our allies was lost.
Missing from U. S. policy thinking has been differentiation between totally
different types of threats: industrialized nations, nations outside the NPT or
suspected of subverting it, "rogue states" (North Korea, for example) and
subnational or terrorist groups. President Carter was seeking a single
comprehensive policy which could solve all potential problems with one policy
initiative. However, history suggests that the issue is more complex than he
4.3 Terrorist Threats
Argument: If separated plutonium metal or oxide were shipped in commerce,
terrorists could steal it and make a bomb.
Counter: Terrorist scenarios must certainly be taken seriously, because it is
recognized that terrorists could get much publicity from an attempt to steal
plutonium, regardless of whether or not they could make an explosive out of it.
A more likely scenario for terrorists would be to threaten to release powder
into the air. The actual threat to health would be very low, but the
likelihood of panic would be very high indeed.
For decades, action-ready nuclear weapon components and actual weapons were
routinely shipped throughout the U. S. in unmarked trucks. Shipments of
plutonium oxide in Europe are carefully accounted for, packaged and sealed, and
transported under very tight security. Japan has sent spent fuel to France for
reprocessing. Despite emotional outcries from a number of Asian nations, the
ship that carried Japan's reprocessed plutonium on its voyage home was
thoroughly safeguarded and monitored under stringent international controls.
4.4 Setting an International Example
Argument: For the U. S. to set a convincing example, it was necessary to
treat all nations alike. And obviously, if it wanted others to refrain
from reprocessing, it had to refrain itself.
Counter: In fact, other nations wanted their fuel reprocessed in order to use,
save or barter their plutonium, and so that they could dispose of their nuclear
waste and thereby satisfy environmental concerns.
Discussion: The U. S. could have offered commercial reprocessing services, just
as Britain, France and Belgium did. This action would have offered a clear way
to reduce perceived risks related to reprocessing in unstable regions of the
Actually, some Europeans leaders suspected that the U. S. (with its huge
coal, oil and gas resources) was trying to get an economic advantage in
energy, and by calling for them to abandon their programs, might be trying to
recover its world leadership in nuclear energy. They believed this, because to
them, the Administration's economic and proliferation arguments against
reprocessing did not make sense.
Proliferation threats from advanced nations, rogue states and terrorists
were not differentiated. Jimmy Carter wanted a comprehensive policy that
solved all proliferation problems. The goal was a leakproof regime, but that
was unrealistic in view of all the alternative paths to nuclear weapons. Far
from being comprehensive, the Carter policy affected only possible path: from
commercial reprocessing in industrialized nations. These nations had better,
more secure and secret ways if they wanted to make nuclear weapons.
4.5 Economics and Arithmetic
Argument: Reprocessing was not economical, so it should not proceed, or at
least it should be delayed for decades.
Discussion: Economic analyses played a decisive role in reaching the
decision to stop reprocessing. A key position of President Ford's Fri
Report and of the Ford Foundation/Mitre Corporation (F/M) panel that
advised Jimmy Carter was that reprocessing offered little economic benefit.
Therefore, the reasoning went, if it carried any additional proliferation
risks, it was logical to prevent it.
Actually, most of the computer analyses did show a break-even or slight
advantage to reprocessed mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel relative to
newly mined and enriched uranium fuel costs. However, fuel cost was only 1/4
of nuclear power generation cost, and generation cost was less than half of the
consumer's electricity price. Small savings in fuel cost were not the
More important was the fact that utilities were seriously concerned about
long-term factors, like nuclear waste disposal and ultimate utilization of
plutonium in breeder reactors, which made closing of the nuclear fuel cycle
very important to their planning. Although the arithmetic the modelers used in
calculating relative fuel costs may well have been right, real economics
includes much more than fuel cost.
Utilities saw nuclear power as essential for the future. The President was
ordering utilities to cut back on burning oil and gas. Failure to close the
fuel cycle, demonstrate waste disposal and keep the option open for breeder
reactors meant that nuclear power's future was no longer than that of oil and
In any case, the investors and their customers should have had more say
about whether or not they wanted to take that financial risk, rather than
having government preempt market decisions.
Economic modeling studies made for the F/M panel also indicated that energy
costs would represent a large absolute amount over time. However, the leading
F/M economist argued that large as they were, energy and its costs represented
but a small fraction of the total economy. So, the F/M panel decided that a
limited saving in electricity costs should not be a crucial factor in ultimate
More telling however, was the conclusion of the modeling studies that the cost
of delay of 10, 20, or even 30 years did not have a serious effect on the
overall economy over 100 years. (This would have been very debatable if
experienced energy experts had reviewed the findings, especially since future
costs and benefits were heavily discounted.) Thus the recommendation to defer
reprocessing and the breeder was easy, because it was seen to carry no great
penalty that the general public could see.
4.6 Direct Disposal vs. Reprocessing: Proliferation Risk Assessment
Argument: Direct disposal by burying spent fuel eliminates any possibility of
reprocessing and separating plutonium.
Counter: In commercial facilities today plutonium stays under international
Discussion: The realistic risks of proliferation for direct disposal of
spent fuel can be compared with risks from safeguarding separated
plutonium, making it into MOX fuel, burning it in power reactors, and
returning it to the spent fuel standard.
Proliferation risk with direct disposal of spent fuel is a longer term
matter. A lot of the radioactivity of the fission products decays away in a
couple of decades. Therefore, an underground repository filled with spent
nuclear fuel could actually become a rich
mine of plutonium ore. At some future time, the radioactivity,
while not trivial, would be low enough to permit rather unsophisticated mining
and reprocessing to separate the plutonium.
The proliferation risk of the "plutonium mine" is regarded to be low.
However it is not to be ignored. If proliferation is really a long-term
concern, the risk of direct disposal of spent fuel becoming a "plutonium
mine" actually becomes greater than from separating, storing and burning
reactor-grade plutonium. With time, the intense radiation from the fission
products in the spent fuel decays to levels where a terrorist group (let alone
a nation) could separate the plutonium with a much less sophisticated and
To the F/M panel and the Carter administration, the conclusions were
Reprocessing: On basis of arguments presented to Carter, it didn't make any
sense, because the economic advantage was small or none, the
U. S. could afford to delay it 10 - 20 years, and there was a proliferation
risk that could be avoided.
Uranium: There was probably much more uranium in the Earth's crust than was
known at the time. Fewer plants were being finished, so the urgency claimed by
nuclear experts for reprocessing and breeder was no longer persuasive.
Energy: The F/M panel thought they had found a simple and obvious
compromise: They believed that nuclear power could still go ahead
successfully without reprocessing.
Difference in judgment: The policy illustrated two opposing views:
Carter was convinced that you could stop reprocessing and nuclear power
would still go ahead just fine. Therefore, since it added to proliferation
risk, it made no sense to go ahead, and he believed that others would find this
The nuclear industry recognized that closing the fuel cycle with
reprocessing and waste disposal was essential to public acceptance. They saw
that any additional proliferation risk from reprocessing was marginal, and much
less important than potential danger from war over energy resources. It didn't
make sense to set an example, because other nations would not accept it
5. JIMMY CARTER
Jimmy Carter was truly concerned about proliferation. He made reducing the
threat a personal commitment as well as an objective for his
administration. He believed that steps in that direction were "the right
things to do." Interestingly, although the general commitment to
non-proliferation goals appeared in certain campaign speeches and in the
list of "promises" he wished to fulfill, concerns about the nuclear fuel
cycle, reprocessing, and even opposition to the Clinch River Breeder
Reactor, rarely appear on any list of high-priority issues identified by
those who have chronicled and studied the Carter presidency. His pollster
found few people who even mentioned it unless they prompted for it. Jimmy
Carter found that the recommendations of the F/M panel fit well with his
promise, and he had no doubts about it or fear of political backlash.
It is fair to ask if this kind of decision scenario could have occurred
under a different president than Jimmy Carter. Arguably, no greater
opposites could be found in their approach to decision making than Jimmy
Carter and Gerald Ford. Carter's analytic approach, his appetite for
details, his distaste for business, his distrust of the bureaucracy, and
his determination to do what he saw as right even if it would be the hard way,
showed through in many of his decisions. This decision came out the way it did
in no small part due to Carter being the newly elected President.
6. WHERE WAS THE NUCLEAR ESTABLISHMENT?
Among the people who drafted both the Ford and the Carter policies, there were
a number who fully believed that nuclear power could proceed in a healthy way
without reprocessing. They felt that nuclear power could even be more
acceptable to the public if it could free itself of the image of proliferation
At the same time, the leading anti-nuclear activists fully recognized that
without reprocessing, the nuclear power fuel cycle could not be closed, the
breeder reactor would be stopped, and nuclear power's future would be limited,
if not ended. This fit their own personal and organizational goals.
A critical analysis of the positions taken by various groups in the
political battles on this issue reveals that despite stated concerns about
economics and nonproliferation, the actions called for would fit well with a
serious political initiative to eliminate nuclear energy as a major source of
electricity for the future.
Leaders of the global nuclear industry recognized the single-mindedness and
dedication of the activists. They saw the seriousness of this threat, and felt
pushed to the wall by it. They complained privately and publicly, but their
arguments about relative risk, difficulty (rather than impossibility) of
proliferation from civilian reprocessing, adequacy of safeguards (though not
perfection), and long-term needs for energy failed to win attention.
The old Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear power industry itself,
along with its few supporters in Congress (holdovers from the former Joint
Committee on Atomic Energy) were seen as being locked into rigid beliefs and
fearful of any change to their traditional positions. Therefore, it was felt
that their views could conveniently be ignored without political penalty.
At the same time, the energy industry was listening to President Carter's
arguments on the energy crisis. To them, it seemed that undermining nuclear
energy and at the same time worrying about limited and unstable supplies of oil
and gas, along with air pollution from coal, didn't make any sense. In fact,
the Carter policy statement was within weeks of his speech in which he
identified the energy crisis as "The Moral Equivalent Of War" (the MEOW
speech). He did not, however, say that the "war" was important enough to
include revitalizing nuclear energy.
7. SINCE 1977
President Carter viewed his international study as a way to buy time,
providing an opportunity for other governments to reconsider their views on the
nuclear power fuel cycle and, hopefully, accept the U. S. position. In fact,
it bought (or really, it cost) three years. During that time all the
industrial momentum where nuclear energy was concerned was lost. And it did
not change the minds of the other nations.
Many changes have taken place in the world energy picture in the past
twenty years. The role of nuclear power has declined from all of the
projections that were being made at that time. Much more is understood
about nuclear weapons. More mature views have emerged of their limited
military role and of the threat of proliferation. A number of nations have
considered developing nuclear weapons and then backed away. Energy issues are
seldom on the front page. Proliferation threats still make the newspaper on
occasion, but the Cold War is over, and the fear of all-out nuclear war no
longer dominates children's dreams.
U. S. policy is once again solidly in opposition to reprocessing. The
phrase used is that "reprocessing is inconsistent with the Government's
nonproliferation policies." The Clinton administration has accepted the
reasoning of the Carter years. This rigidity wasted several years and
undermined our ability to work effectively with other nations toward
disposition of excess nuclear weapons. If we were reprocessing
commercially, and had MOX fabrication plants in routine operation, burning the
excess weapons plutonium could be almost half completed by now.
But more important, our policy against reprocessing also holds hostage the
rebirth of nuclear energy. While there is no immediate prospect for
investment in nuclear power plants, and in fact, U. S. utilities are not
investing in any large power plants (coal-burning or anything else but
natural gas), things could change. It is only twenty years since Congress, so
concerned about our domestic resources, passed the Fuel Use Act banning new
large oil or gas-burning plants. Who can be sure about energy in the coming
decades? How much will natural gas prices rise? Will global warming be
serious enough to curtail burning coal oil and gas for electricity?
The time is coming when the nation will need many new power plants to meet
growing needs for electricity and to replace obsolete plants. And when that
time does come, it is my hope that issues involving nuclear energy can be
debated openly and honestly, not just emotionally as has often been the case.
I also believe that in the future it is inevitable that TJhe nation will need a
number of new nuclear power plants. And when it comes to the fuel cycle, we
need to examine reprocessing, the breeder reactor, nonproliferation and
plutonium honestly, openly and objectively. Perhaps then, a wider recognition
of the realities will raise the quality of the energy debate.