Soon after being inaugurated then President Jimmy Carter instituted a policy to guard against plutonium, being produced to use in our “nuclear fuel cycle,” being diverted to weapons production by “bad guys.” He called this program, “Full Scope Safeguards.”
The problem stemmed from the simple fact that plutonium, unlike enriched uranium, does not emit radioactive rays so it does not require the elaborate containers that are needed to transport and hold enriched uranium. A mere whisp of ingested plutonium will kill you but it will not “zap” you. President Carter considered this ease of use for weapons too dangerous to leave unchecked, so he implemented a program to control all plutonium and, more importantly, prevent the widespread production of it.
Simple answer to a potentially dangerous problem, except that we had already developed in the USA, and in several other countries, a nuclear power industry that was based on using plutonium. Fuel used up by an uranium fed nuclear reactor, “spent fuel,” was to be reprocessed to extract plutonium that would be stored for use in the new generation of reactors, the so-called “fast breeder reactors.” These amazing machines use plutonium as their fuel while creating more fuel than initially consumed. Again, these machines manufacture new fuel while consuming the fuel they receive, thus the term “breeder reactors, since they create their own fuel.
This nuclear power system would have allowed for an exponential growth in nuclear produced power that would have taken a heavy load off of using fossil fuel. President Carter stopped the program in its tracks and thus caused an unexpected increase in our use of fossil fuel with its attendant emmissions that are now the bugaboo of the anit-global warming crowd.
Carter’s program also caused me a monumental headache and a problem on a par with the Gordian Knot. You see, at the time I was the “energy officer” at our embassy in Madrid, Spain. US firms were busily constructing eight new nuclear power plants in Spain at a price of over one billion dollars each under an bilateral treaty between the US and Spain. That agreement was based on using the spent fuel from the reactors to be reprocessed for plutonium for breeder reactors. Under the agreement the Spanish were to send their spent fuel to England to eventually be reprocessed for breeder reactors. The Carter policy banned this movement.
Obviously we had to renegotiate the treaty to accomodate the new policy, since US law overrules international treaties. The Spanish were in no mood to renegotiate the treaty since they had no plans for storing the spent fuel. If you think this is an easy problem to solve, think Yucca Mountain where we want to store our own spent fuel.
Charged with renogiating the treaty I spent a day or so analizing the agreement and Carter’s new policy. I then told my boss, we needed to make four new agreements, three would be fairly easy, but the fourth would be worthy of David Copperfield. And we had to solve the problem fast since US industry could be out at least the eight billions dollars for building the new reactors. The eight billion dollars was in turn covered by a credit given to the Spanish by our Export Import Bank, a US Government agency, to buy our technology, installations and fuel. This was its largest exposure for one line of business or one country in the bank’s history. Also at stake was the prestige and credibility of our Nuclear Power Agency which had ginned up the whole concept and system. To say I was under pressure from many sides is to put it mildly.
To make a long story short, we did the three easy agreements quickly. I slaved over the fourth agreement using input from all the players. It was made so opaque with diplomatic verbage, that even I, as the author, did not understand it. However, I figured that if I could not understand it, no one else would be able to do so. We got the Spanish to accept it as an “interim” agreement for six months, while we tried to find a more permanent solution. The agreement actually lasted for ten years until the situation was resolved by the passage of time, or until it was finally decoded, whichever happened first.
Since I was the only person who had negotiated a new agreement that complied with the new “Full Scope Safeguards” policy, I was invited by the NRA to come work for them. I would have been jetting around the world negotiating new agreements with other recipients of US nuclear technology, equipment and materials. I chose to stay with the State Department and went into its Office for Nuclear Affairs where my first job was to draw up a schedule to renegotiate all of our agreements. However, it soon became abundently clear that, if little thought had been given to constructing the safeguards’ policy, even less had been given to its implications or how to bring all countries into compliance. I opted to go overseas fast rather than wait for the inevitable failure.
And fail it did. Believe it or not the first country with whom we were to sign a new nuclear treaty that was in full compliance with “Full Scope Safeguards” was, you guessed it, Iran. The deal fell through when the revolution overthrew the Shah and the Revolutionary Guard, under the guidance of a then young Almadinejad, seized our embassy and held the staff hostage for over a year. As far as I was able to tell, we never got anyone to agree to our “Full Scope Safeguards,” thus putting an end to our participation in building nuclear power facilities in other countries. Our potential buyers crossed over to do deals with France, which left in place its provisions for reprocessing spent fuel to use in breeder reactors, in France.