The Carter administration has failed in a major two-year effort to persuade the rest of the world to halt construction of advanced nuclear facilities likely to greatly increase the availability of plutonium suitable for use in fabricating atomic bombs.
A 20-page draft summary of the conclusions of the 63-nation International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation conference, which the U. u. S. organized in October 1977 as the cornerstone of its effert to prevent nuclear proliferation, began circulateing among the the participating countries several days ago.
The summary backs the European and Japanese view that advanced facilities -- fast-breeder reactors and plutonium reprocessing plants -- will be needed to meet the world's future energy needs.
It also takes such a bullish view in the future of nuclear power that some U.S. sources say the Carter administration is seriously considering a formal dissent on this point at the final INFCE meeting in Vienna next February.
The summary, according to an authoritative source who has seen it, spells out the consensus of the participants in the conference "in a way that is most negative to U.S. policy -- no ban on reprocessing, no ban on the breeder."
"We certainly did not persuade the rest of the world of the wisdom of our opinions," one of the Carter administrations top nuclear negotiators acknowledged in an interview. "If this was the criteria, we'd rate a D-minus."
To the surprise of few experts, the Infce conference failed to realize Carter's hope that it would find new "safer" technologies that could be developed in the next decade to reduce the proliferation risk inherent in a world where nuclear power plants producelarge quantities of plutonium as part of their burned-up fuel.
The plutonium can be separated out of the waste by a country that has a reprocessing facility, and used either as new fuel for power plants or in the manufacture of atomic bombs.
"We discovered no technical fixes,' aU.S. official said. "People who thought that we would -- their hopes were exaggerated. Whether we like it or not, there is going to be a certain amount of plutonium floating around the world in the future."
The draft summary also distresses many U.S. experts by forecasting construction of hundreds of new atomic power plants around the world in the next two decades -- a project that even most European experts now consider too high.
"The estimates were made in 1977," one U.S. official said, "The report doesn't reflect the changes since. The estimates of growth are outrageously high."
But while conference sources express dismay at the possibility that the United States may decide to jeopardize the consensus it has been trying to build in nuclear issues by publicly dissenting from the report, they say the projections on the future of nuclear power will not be revised downward.
"There's no way that is going to be changed," a conference source said. "Anybody who is for plutonium recycling for breeders needs those numbers. The Americans can say whatever they want in the plenary, but the numbers stay in the report."
One reason that some administration officials see a need to put distance between President Carter and the study he commissioned is that they view it as a political embarrassment that belies the fact that a generally more favorable nonproliferation climate exists today than two years ago.
Plutonium reprocessing provides a case in point.
In 1977, the Carter administration -- alarmed over efforts by South Korea, Pakistan and Brazil to acquire reprocessing plants that could give them material to become nuclear weapons states -- was pressing for a ban on these facilities.
The United States argued that there was no need -- on either economic or supply grounds -- to reprocess spent fuel from current-generation nuclear power plants.
A number of other countries, however, felt they could ultimately save money on fuel for their power plants through reprocessing. They also felt they could gain greater energy independence by separating out and reusing the plutonium, thus reducing the need to buy more uranium fuel for their reactors. Some also felt reprocessing the spent fuel and separating out the plutonium was the only way to solve the nuclear waste disposal problem. o
Two years later, the Infce conference is ending with no ban on reprocessing."The Europeans and Japanese can't accept the American view that it is an illegitimate activity," an administration official said. "to the extent that we tried to persuade them it was illegitimate, we've lost the battle."
But at the same time, the Infce study has concluded that "there is not much of an economic case to be made for reprocessing, reprocessing does not provide energy independence and it is not necessary for waste disposal," according to a conference source.
As a result, even though there will be no ban on reprocessing many nuclear experts feel the headlong rush of several years ago to build plutonium reprocessing plants has been slowed.
"I think the U.S. position is going to prevail because the U.S. is right on the economics," a conference source said. "there is not much real pressure for reprocessing except in Japan. There is not going to be much more reprocessing in at least the next decade."
Somewhat more of a potential problem for the Carter administration is the Infce conference's view that the world will probably need fast-breeder nuclear reactors -- so-called because they produce more plutonium fuel than they use.
Carter campaigned against the breeder reactor in 1976 and as president set out to kill construction of a prototype breeder reactor at Clinch River, Tenn. -- even though congressional backers of Clinch River have forced him to continue spending more than $14 million a month on that project.
The Infce report, sources say, not only declares that there is a substantial probability that major industrial nations will need breeder reactors to meet their energy needs-- probably in the first quarter of the 21st century-- but also backs the European view that breeders are safer, potentially less costly and enviromentally better than current nuclear reactors.
"This part of the Infce effort was not satisfactory from our standpoint,"a Carter administration official said.