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

November 5, 2012

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

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

After several decades of widespread stagnation, nuclear power has attracted renewed interest in recent years. New license applications for 30 reactors have been announced in the United States, and another 548 are under construction, planned, or proposed around the world. 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 concerns about carbon emissions from competing fossil fuel technologies.

A major concern about the global expansion of nuclear power is the potential spread of nuclear fuel cycle technology—particularly uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing—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. However, concern over the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies may be offset by support for nuclear power as a cleaner and more secure alternative to fossil fuels. The Obama Administration has expressed optimism that advanced nuclear technologies being developed by the Department of Energy may offer proliferation resistance. The Administration has also pursued international incentives and agreements intended to minimize the spread of fuel cycle facilities.

Proposals offering countries access to nuclear power and thus the fuel cycle have ranged from requesting formal commitments by these countries to forswear sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology, to a de facto approach in which states would not operate fuel cycle facilities but make no explicit commitments, to no restrictions at all. Countries joining the U.S.- led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), now the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC), 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 was transformed into IFNEC under the Obama Administration and has continued as an international fuel cycle forum, 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 addressing the potential global 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 U.S. participation in IFNEC 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 112 th Congress.

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