Swiss plea tests US policy

Switzerland's request to transfer radioactive fuel for reprocessing has prompted protests and tries US policy on nuclear proliferation.

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

THE CLINTON administration's policy on nuclear proliferation and the use of plutonium -- the main ingredient of nuclear warheads -- is being put to test by a Swiss request to ship used commercial nuclear fuel to Britain. The fuel was provided by the US on the condition that it retain the right to approve subsequent use.

The plutonium content left over in the fuel would be extracted at the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield in the UK and returned to Switzerland for commercial use. The Thorp plant had recently begun operations amid protests and fears of nuclear proliferation (Down To Earth, January 31, 1994).

The issue has become contentious because US president Bill Clinton has expressed strong opposition to the spread of plutonium. Clinton had called for a worldwide ban on the production of plutonium for military uses, as there was a huge surplus of plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads.

Commercial fuel But Clinton has not sought a similar ban on the reprocessing of commercial fuel to avoid offending France, Britain, Japan and Russia, who are firm about using plutonium as a commercial energy resource. Clinton has also declined to interfere with the transfer of plutonium between friendly nations.

However, opponents of nuclear proliferation argue that military and commercial plutonium cannot be differentiated. Several Democrat members of the US House of Representatives called on the government to block the Swiss shipment and have also appealed to the federal Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to issue a public assessment of the threat the transaction might pose.

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