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The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: Will It Advance Nonproliferation or Undermine It?

Paper presented by UCS senior scientist Dr. Edwin Lyman at the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management on July 19, 2006.

Abstract

In February 2006, the Department of Energy announced the creation of a major new program known as the "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" (GNEP). Although details are sketchy at this time, the program as currently described would involve the institution of international arrangements by which certain "supplier" nations, including the United States, would lease nuclear fuel to other nations, in exchange for commitments that the recipient nations would not seek nuclear fuel production facilities of their own. The supply agreements would also provide for the return of the spent fuel to one or more of the supplier nations. An integral part of the GNEP proposal would be the development and deployment of modified reprocessing technologies that would be used to extract plutonium and other actinides from spent fuel, as well as fast neutron reactors capable of efficiently using fuel incorporating the recovered actinides. Among the various motivations cited for the program, its alleged benefits for nonproliferation have been stressed. According to DOE, "The Partnership would demonstrate the critical technologies needed to change the way nuclear fuel is managed ... while simultaneously promoting non-proliferation." However, DOE has not been able to convincingly explain how this proposal would actually advance nonproliferation. On the other hand, critics maintain that a reversal of the de facto moratorium on reprocessing in the United States would only undermine efforts to keep existing stockpiles of weapon-usable materials out of the hands of states of concern and terrorists. This paper will analyze whether the GNEP proposal is likely to strengthen or weaken efforts to fight proliferation and the nuclear terrorism threat, with particular attention to the claim that the system will be "proliferation-resistant."

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