France isn’t the only one pushing nuclear power

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising quite a few eyebrows since he assumed the presidency, not least by leveraging French civilian nuclear expertise to gain diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. This week, the International Herald Tribune noted “unease” among nonproliferation experts “at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear-bomb usable technologies to proliferation-prone ...

595991_080314_sarko2.jpg
595991_080314_sarko2.jpg

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising quite a few eyebrows since he assumed the presidency, not least by leveraging French civilian nuclear expertise to gain diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. This week, the International Herald Tribune noted "unease" among nonproliferation experts "at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear-bomb usable technologies to proliferation-prone regions." The article also notes that, even putting proliferation concerns aside, obstacles to the large-scale spread of nuclear power exist -- some of which include high infrastructure costs, waste management issues, and personnel shortages.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising quite a few eyebrows since he assumed the presidency, not least by leveraging French civilian nuclear expertise to gain diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. This week, the International Herald Tribune noted “unease” among nonproliferation experts “at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear-bomb usable technologies to proliferation-prone regions.” The article also notes that, even putting proliferation concerns aside, obstacles to the large-scale spread of nuclear power exist — some of which include high infrastructure costs, waste management issues, and personnel shortages.

France is not the only country seeking ways to surmount such obstacles, though. The U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is one of the best known of these initiatives. The core proposal behind GNEP is to employ advanced reprocessing technology to close the nuclear fuel cycle as much as possible. This entails recycling burnt nuclear fuel over and over until it is no longer useful for producing electricity or weapons. In so doing, GNEP aims to increase effective fuel supplies, decrease the amount of waste produced by nuclear power plants, and reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation. As initially conceived, existing nuclear exporters would (exclusively) perform enrichment and reprocessing services and provide them to any GNEP partner that agreed to refrain from enriching or reprocessing fuel on its own.

So far, it has signed on 21 nations as partners and has several others observing or interested. Most recently, the UK joined, praising GNEP for promoting “responsible nuclear development.” In theory, this all sounds great, but GNEP has been attacked from several angles. Perhaps most crucially, the National Academies of Science and Engineering found that the required technologies are “too early in development” to justify large-scale implementation. Others (pdf) argue that reprocessing is economically unsound (at least for now); that waste issues won’t be eased significantly; and that, using current technology, the initiative may actually be more proliferation-prone than the current nuclear fuel cycle.

As a result, Congress slashed funding for GNEP in the FY2008 budget, but the Bush administration has requested a significant increase for FY09. In addition, the program does seem to have broad international appeal. Partners include countries as widely spread as Bulgaria, Ghana, Poland, Senegal, and South Korea. With so many other nations involved, GNEP seems likely to persist in some form despite congressional opposition. But given the state of reprocessing science today and the political restrictions under which it operates, GNEP will likely undergo some significant changes in the future.

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