March 10, 2013, marked the 35th anniversary of entry into force of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, Public Law 95-242. Warren H. Donnelly was a Senior Specialist in the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Policy division of the Congressional Research Service (CRS). During his tenure he produced some of the most concise, thoughtful and well-regarded reports on the nonproliferation debates of the 1970s. Of particular note is a report he wrote in October 1978 called “The Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, Public Law 95-242: An Explanation.” Worthy of reproduction are these paragraphs on “The Ideal Use of Nuclear Energy”:
U.S. legislation for dealing with the relation between nuclear power and nuclear weapons implies a vision of an ideal future use of nuclear power. By reference to [the Nuclear Non-proliferation Act of 1978] and some reading between its lines—which is always an uncertain undertaking—it is possible to arrive at the following features for this ideal.
Ideally, international commerce in and domestic production of separated plutonium, highly enriched uranium, and separated uranium-233 would be avoided, at least for decades to come. World nuclear power would be confined to use of natural or slightly enriched uranium, with terminal storage of their unreprocessed spent fuel in international facilities, or at least in national facilities under international auspices and inspection. Plutonium would not be used as a nuclear fuel. Nuclear supplier and user nations would have agreed upon common restrictions on nuclear trade, with no transfers of plant and equipment for enrichment or reprocessing. They would agree to impose sanctions on nations that violate their nonproliferation commitments. All nations would have ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and, accordingly, except for nuclear-weapon states, all would permit International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to be applied to all their nuclear activities. Nuclear-weapon states would voluntarily place their civil nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. Uniform and effective standards for physical security of nuclear materials and facilities would apply throughout the world. Nuclear supplier nations would keep control over what is done with equipment, materials, fuels and technology that they provide, and user nations would have to get permission to transfer, to enrich, or to reprocess supplied nuclear materials, and approvals for storage of spent fuel.
The main incentives for nations to adhere to such non-proliferation commitments would be an assured, reliable supply of nuclear power plants and equipment by supplier states and of nuclear fuel by an International Nuclear Fuel Authority which might also store spent fuel. Nations would be committed not to build new enrichment and reprocessing plants on a national basis and would place existing facilities under international auspices and inspection. If and when reprocessing were needed, it probably would be provided by a facility under some kind of international management and control. Nuclear safeguards of International Atomic Energy Agency…could provide timely warning of diversion.
National and international research and development would concentrate on perfection of nuclear fuel cycles that recover more of the potential energy of uranium and thorium resources while not increasing the risks of proliferation beyond that posed by the light water reactor fuel cycle with terminal storage of spent fuel.
On the whole, this ideal nuclear future would emphasize use of natural uranium or slightly enriched fuel cycles for some decades to come, with emphasis on improved fuel efficiency, and would discourage fuel cycles that involve easily accessible plutonium, U-233 or highly enriched uranium. Commercial deployment of the plutonium breeder and of reprocessing would be deferred into the more distant future when safeguards might be improved enough to offset the proliferation risks associated with present approaches to the fast breeder reactor. (Report 78-198 S, October 25, 1978, at pp. 1-3.)
Plus ça change?
Donnelly’s description of an ideal nuclear future has not yet come to pass. In the main, the features he described 35 years ago bear resemblance to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the IAEA safeguards system and U.S. policy regarding enrichment and reprocessing (ENR), with some exceptions which I will address in an additional post later this week on ENR.