A NOVEL international experiment, known by the unpronounceable acronym INFCE, ended last week. The experiment, the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation, involved 66 nations in an intense two-year investigation of ways to minimize the dangers of nuclear proliferation associated with commercial nuclear energy. As in most other realms of energy policy, the technical and political aspects of nuclear power are inseparable, and so, although INFCE was not a negotition, it involved a delicate, political exercise as well as a technical analysis. In a sense, the technical inquiry was only a cover: the vehicle that allowed nations to discuss their highly charged differences of opinion on how best to avoid the further spread of nuclear bombs.

INFCE was a U.S. project, an admittedly risky attempt to slow the rapid diffusion of sensitive nuclear facilities and material, particularly reprocessing and enrichment plants, highly enriched weapons-grade uranium, and plutonium. The United States believed that if countries could be brought to take a second look at some of the prevailing technical and economic assumptions about nuclear power, many might reformulate their plans. INFCE was an attempt to buy time -- time that could be used for a sober second study of nuclear risks and benefits.

INFCE's very creation was an accomplishment: acknowledgment that nuclear power and nuclear proliferation are linked. Though that may seem self-evident, it was not so generally accepted in 1977. By virtue of its open membership, INFCE also, importantly, bridged the widening gap between nuclear-supplier nations and nuclear-importer nations, providing a forum where non-proliferation concerns could be discussed from both points of view.

In relation to U.S. non-proliferation goals, the INFCE final report is a mixed bag. On the positive side, it notes that sensitive nuclear facilities -- reprocessing and enrichment plants and others that provide direct access to weapons-usable materials -- should be limited to a few countries, and generally supports a more cautious approach to all nuclear exports. It also concludes that reprocessing is not -- as some had contended -- necessary for the permanent disposal of nuclear wastes, and that reprocessing of fuel for use in non-breeder reactors is at best marginal economically. Since the U.S. position is that reprocessing should be avoided until required for use with breeder reactors, both conclusions are considerable victories for U.S. policy.

On the crucial issue of the balance between projected nuclear demand and future uranium supply, INFCE partially supports the U.S. view that commitments to the breeder at this time are premature. Its projections of nuclear demand are way above a realistic estimate, but they are also way below the international estimates that existed before INFCE. Despite these high projections, the report concludes that uranium supply should be sufficient for the lower range of nuclear growth, even without breeders, until 2025.

On the negative side, INFCE gave a warm endorsement to breeder reactors, and flatly rejected the U.S. view that the breeder fuel cycle is substantially more dangerous than current reactors employed without reprocessing. However -- in a modest softening of the blow -- the report also notes that breeders are most appropriate in industrialized nations with large nuclear electric grids: in other words, in the current nuclear weapons states, plus Germany and Japan.

All in all, INFCE was at least a modest success. It ended the myth that nuclear energy and nuclear weapons have nothing to do with each other, and did much to diminish the international momentum toward breeder reactors. It did not endorse all of this country's non-proliferation policies, but then, that should never have been expected.