The plutonium breeder reactor has a lot in common with the Concorde, the supersonic jet, as a device for souring this country's relations with Europe. In political terms the chief difference between the two is that the breeder reactor touches immensely greater national interests. If American nuclear policies are not managed with very great skill, they will inflict a degree of damage of which the surprisingly bitter now over Concorde provides only the mildest warning.
Once upon a time people thought that high technology would tie nations together, because of the need for scientific cooperation and massive investments. That happy thought turns out to have been a bit too optimistic. The United States now seems to be in the process of changing its mind about plutonium as a commercial fuel. The U.S. government is beginning to discourage the dispersal of this technology around the world. That's the issue in the Carter administration's attempt to interrupt the sale of West German plutonium equipment to Brazil.
Consider the parallel with Concorde. The United States now seems to be in the process of changing its mind about plutonium as a commercial fuel. The U.S. government is beginning to discourage the dispersal of this technology around the world. That's the issue in the Carter administration's attempt to interrupt the sale of West German plutonium equipment to Brazil.
Consider the parallel with Concorde. The United States chose not to build it - but the British and French partnership decided differently. Now the machine is in the air, and it wants to land in New York. Americans complain about the noise, but Europeans consider that objection to be hardly more than a veil for crass commercial protectionism plus, perhaps, a strain of resentment at a technology that does not have the American flag stamped on it. The issues here are really rather minor: costs, noise levels and whether your trip to Europe takes eight hours or four. But the politics of the landing righs has become disproportionately divisive.
Unlike Concorde, energy technology touches national necessities of the first order. Europeans sharply point out that the United States enjoys the luxury of reconsidering plutonium only because - unlike Europe - this country has vast reserves of coal and plenty of uranium.
But the magic of the breeder reactor is that it produces about 70 times as much energy, per pound of uranium, as the uranium-fueled light water reactors now producing electricity in this country. There's a price to be paid for this magic - plutonium as a fuel is vastly more dangerously than uranium.
Europe is prepared to take the risk. Europeans now see the breeder reactor as the ultimate answer to their dependence on foreign fuel sources. Which foreign sources? For one, the United States which, to be candid, has given other nations reason to be cautious about its reliability.
The United States has been the Europeans' main supplier of enriched uranium for the present generation of commercial reactors. But recently the United States has been vague and noncommittal about its plans for expanding its uranium exports. There has also been increasing strain over the controls that the United States wants to put on the fuel that it sells - controls that Europeans consider unnecessary and demeaning. Because of these uncertainties and disagreements, Europe has now begun to buy enriched uranium from the Soviet Union which, as one European official puts it, is much more flexible.
But this choice between American and Russian supplies only reinforces the Europeans' intense desire to unhook themselves from both of the superpowers - and to use their own great command of technology to achieve both independence and security of supply. The major European powers have already gone a very long way in their commitment to the development of plutonium breeder reactors. France and Britain have both had experimental breeders running since the 1960s. Germany has one in operation now, and there's another under construction in Italy. As for the much bigger commercial breeders, France has now decided to go ahead with the world's first - the 1200 megawatt Superphenix. A 1300 megawatt breeder is under design in Britain.
These protypes demonstrate the European command over the technology. But here we come back to the Concorde analogy again. They won't be competitive, in economic terms, unless they are widely used. There is going to be fierce pressure on European governments to export these machines, to help pay for the enormous development costs. The German sale of the plutonium reprocessing plant to Brazil isn't the last of these cases. It's more likely to be only the first.
American ideas on the subject currently run strongly in favor of U.S. guarantees to deliver enriched uranium to Europe, in order to make plutonium reprocessing unnecessary. But Europeans fear that U.S. policy might be subject to change with each successive President, and that internationalization of the reprocessing plants will only dilute their own control.
The United States still has time to back away from the plutonium breeder. But it's too late for Americans to persuade Europe (or, for that matter, Japan) to come with them. At this point, the only realistic goal for U.S. policy is to try to limit the worldwide traffic in plutonium to those countries with very large requirements for electric power - and with proven records in weapons control. That much of a policy is necessary, but even going that far threatens an unpleasantly high level of friction between this country and Europe.
Advanced technologies, it turns out, quickly become national symbols of deep emotional force. If you doubt it, keep watching Concorde.