Nuclear Nonproliferation:

Department of Energy Needs Tighter Controls Over Reprocessing Information

RCED-87-150: Published: Aug 17, 1987. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO examined Department of Energy (DOE) activities that may assist foreign countries in the development of nuclear weapons material, focusing on DOE controls over: (1) dissemination of information related to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel; (2) cooperative research activities it conducts with foreign countries; and (3) involvement of foreign nationals in sensitive nuclear activities and research.

GAO found that: (1) in 1984 and 1985, DOE produced 258 documents related to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel that were available to anyone who wanted them; (2) countries posing a proliferation or security risk obtained copies of these documents, some of which contained information on improved methods of purifying plutonium to weapons-useable levels; (3) DOE has not applied for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption for applied technology related to reprocessing, since its position is that it should honor such requests; and (4) the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 (NNPA) does not support the DOE method of determining when to conduct sensitive nuclear technology transfers with other countries. GAO also found that: (1) foreign nationals comprised 30 percent of masters program enrollments and 50 percent of doctoral program enrollments in U.S. university nuclear engineering programs in 1985; and (2) DOE does not have effective administrative control over the 15,000 to 20,000 foreign nationals who visit or work at its facilities each year.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The recommendation was made over a year ago, but Congress has not acted. At this time, it is apparent that Congress does not intend to implement the recommendation.

    Matter: Congress should consider providing DOE with specific directions to develop regulations that implement the SNT definition. Alternatively, Congress should consider amending NNPA to clarify the practices that DOE currently uses to identify and control the transfer of SNT, specifically to: (1) allow DOE to consider other factors, such as the recipient country, in making SNT determinations, thereby establishing a statutory basis for DOE current practices; or (2) require DOE to make SNT determinations in accordance with NNPA, but allow DOE to waive the approval rights requirements for allied countries with advanced nuclear programs on a case-by-case basis after prior notification to Congress.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agrees that a legislative exemption could be an effective tool to control information dissemination, and has this matter under consideration for reprocessing and other sensitive, unclassified information as a result of recommendations made in an June 1989 report (RCED-89-116).

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should seek an exemption from FOIA for all reprocessing technology developed by DOE. Such an exemption can take the form of a revision to section 148 of the Atomic Energy Act or a provision specifically exempting reprocessing data from FOIA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE concurs with the recommendation and is implementing procedures to review reprocessing technology proposed for public release to ensure that it is consistent with export controls. Further, reprocessing research, other than basic research, will be subject to a controlled distribution system.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should, concurrent with the action above, limit the public dissemination of reprocessing data by placing all new reprocessing data in the applied technology category and make it subject to the special distribution controls specified in DOE Order 1430.2.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE does not plan to establish the recommended policy. However, it is providing guidance to universities to apprise them of the sensitivity of reprocessing-related research and the concern over unrestricted dissemination of pertinent information obtained under DOE support.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish a policy that DOE-funded reprocessing research at colleges and universities be carried out only by U.S. citizens or, at a minimum, citizens from countries that adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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