Despite President Carter's program to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, European countries headed by France and West Germany are reported to be setting up a joint company to develop and export fast-breeder atomic reactors.
French officials in Paris said a series of agreements setting up the combine will be signed Tuesday, Reuter reported. The news agency quoted a French official as saying, "We, too, are all for nuclear nonprofileration, but we are determined to push ahead with fast breeders."
Carter has opposed U.S. development of breeder reactors in the grounds that they use and produce plutonium, which can be made into weapons with relative ease. He has suggested that Europe follow the U.S. example in limiting breeder technology to avoid weapons proliferation.
France and West Germany have imposed restrictions on their future sale abroad of nuclear reprocessing plants that can produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is not clear how they would supply the plutonium for use in the last breeders they plan to develop and sell without risking its use to make weapons.
As the news from Paris was becoming known, Carter was praising West Germany's decision to limit the export of sensitive nuclear technology as "a step in the right direction." He made the comment in the presence of reporters during a meeting with Gerard C. Smith, recently named special U.S. representative abroad on nonprofileration.
Carter also said, "We're trying to get suppliers like China and South Africa, to join us in their restraints on selling enriched uranium." It was unclear whether he misspoke or had the future in mind. Neither country is known to have sold enriched uranium.
South Africa has only a pilot enrichment plant, although it plans a commercial venture. China is believed to enrich uranium for its atomic weapons program but is not believed to be a supplier to other nations.
"South Africa has applied safeguards on its [unenriched] uranium exports and we have every expectation that it will continue to do so," said a White House press statement intended to clarify Carter's comments. "We have an interest in working with all uranium exporters and all potential exporters to join us in applying strict international safeguards over nuclear exports," the statemen said.
While House Press Secretary Jody Powell said he did not know at what level diplomatic discussions on the issue were being held with South Africa and China. A later statement said no nuclear discussions are taking place with the Chinese.
"I believe eight or nine months ago there was a general sense throughout the world that nothing could be done about nuclear proliferation," Carter said in the meeting with Smith. "I believe there has been a general sense that people, if we all work together, can adequately constrain nuclear explosive capability."
The report's from Europe said France's atomic energy anthority, West Germany's Interatom and firms from Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy will participate in the joint company to develop and export the breeder. France has started to build the world's first commercial 1,200-megawatt breeder, while West Germany is building a 300-megawatt breeder in cooperation with Belgium and the Dutch.
A French official was quoted by Reuter as saying that Europe has achieved a lead over the United States in breeder reactor technology and is not about to surrender it.
A breeder reactor uses plutonium as fuel and produces more plutonium from the atomic reaction. When obtained in pure form, plutonium can be the raw material for atomic explosives.
Carter's plan to halt work on a $2.2 billion breeder plant at Clinch River. Tenn. - primarily as an example to other nations tempted to develop the breeder - is being heavily contested on Capitol Hill.