U.S. nuclear recycling plans raise proliferation risks

Published 9 June 2008

GAO says that the Department of Energy’s new approach to recycling nuclear materials — or rather, the department’s 2006 decision to go back to a more traditional plutonium separation method — increases the risk of nuclear proliferation

New plans by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) for a nuclear fuel reprocessing programme may play into the hands of nuclear weapons prolfierators. The idea of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel had been anathema to U.S. policymakers for decades because of the fear that plutonium could end up in weapons. Then, in 2006, DoE announced plans to build a plant to test reprocessing technology which would both significantly reduce the amount of nuclear waste and keep the plutonium mixed in with other radioactive materials. Critics, however, argued that technology to do this did not exist. Now it appears that DoE has backtracked on its original plans and is using a separated plutonium technology similar to that used by Japan, France, and Russia, according to an independent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “If mitigating proliferation risks and waste reduction are their goals, we think they should reassess their approach,” says GAO researcher Daniel Feehan.