The NRC has denied a petition for rulemaking filed by the American Physical Society. The APS wanted the NRC to require applicants for licenses for uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities to include a proliferation risk assessment in their license applications.
In denying the petition, the Commission approved the staff’s two main reasons for the decision:
nonproliferation considerations are already an important part of the NRC’s regulatory process; and
the federal government, with its diplomatic and intelligence resources, can evaluate proliferation risks better than a license applicant.
What does this mean?
Proliferation in international affairs refers to the spread of nuclear weapons knowledge, technology and capability. Uranium enrichment and the extraction of plutonium through reprocessing spent fuel are two primary paths for developing nuclear weapons.
Nonproliferation is a policy objective of the U.S. and the international community (most notably through the International Atomic Energy Agency) to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by state and non-state actors. A key way of achieving this goal is to block the spread of nuclear technology used to produce weapons-usable material. The State Department is the lead U.S. agency on nonproliferation issues. Support comes from the Commerce, Defense and Energy departments, the intelligence community and the NRC.
The APS said in the petition they were concerned advances in enrichment or reprocessing technologies might make it easier for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. The group filed the petition after GE-Hitachi applied for a license to build and operate an enrichment plant in North Carolina using laser technology developed in Australia. (The NRC granted that license last September.)
Because the laser technology was developed in Australia, the State Department conducted a proliferation assessment in 1999 as part of the original agreement to import the technology to this country. There is no requirement for such an assessment if the technology is developed and licensed here.
NRC regulations already provide a number of protections against the unauthorized spread of sensitive information, technology or material from the U.S.
• Physical security: Licensees must protect against sabotage or theft of special nuclear material at their facilities and in transit.
• Material control and accounting: Licensees must control and account for their inventories of special nuclear material and document its transfer. This includes protection against unauthorized production of enriched uranium or plutonium.
• Information security: Licensees must prevent unauthorized access to classified information and technology, through security clearances, physical protection, and cyber security.
• Export-import licensing: The NRC must approve the export or import of certain nuclear materials and equipment. Countries receiving the exports must provide assurances that the material or equipment will be protected, at least to the level in internationally-agreed guidelines.
As the staff noted in the petition denial, these requirements and NRC’s continuous oversight form a tapestry of protection for nuclear material and technology. These regulations – focusing on preventing the theft or diversion of radioactive materials and classified technologies – provide day-to-day protection against proliferation risks.
The Commission directed the NRC staff to periodically review these regulations and guidance. Why? To ensure they are robust enough to meet new proliferation challenges related to building and operating enrichment or reprocessing facilities the NRC has not previously licensed.
But that’s not all. The NRC also supports U.S. nonproliferation policy through its regular interactions with the State Department and other agencies. The NRC continuously shares and receives information related to various threats and activities, including those related to proliferation concerns, inside and outside the country. The NRC also supports U.S. participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This group of countries seeks to ensure that nuclear trade for peaceful purposes does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.
The Commission also concluded there is a need to communicate more effectively with the public on how the NRC holistically addresses non-proliferation objectives in agency processes. And to communicate on how the agency contributes to broader government nonproliferation efforts.
The NRC will continue to support the State Department and other federal agencies in these efforts, we will also continue to address proliferation risks in our comprehensive regulations for physical security, material control and accounting, information security, cyber security, and export control.
For these reasons, the NRC is confident these multiple layers address proliferation risks and concerns that might be raised by NRC licensing enrichment or reprocessing facilities.
The NRC’s decision to deny the APS petition will be explained in greater detail in a Federal Register notice to be published soon. The staff paper recommending denial, the Staff Requirements Memorandum approving that recommendation, and the Commissioners’ voting records are available on the NRC website.