Belgium split by U.S. plutonium recycling bid
BRUSSELS, July 12 (Reuters) - A U.S. request to Belgium to recycle
weapons-grade plutonium under an arms reduction treaty split the
country's coalition government on Friday.
President George W. Bush's administration has asked Belgium to
recycle 80 kg (176 lbs) of the highly fissile material into low-grade
nuclear fuel under a deal with Russia to reduce each side's deployed
strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 from about 6,000.
Belgium and France have the technology to convert nuclear weapons-
grade material into MOX fuel that can be used in civilian nuclear
power plants, while the United States does not.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who heads a three-party coalition of
his centre-right Liberals, the Socialists and environmentalist
Greens, supports the request but the Greens wrote to him last month
urging him to reject the request.
The row has been conducted in an exchange of letters thus far but a
government spokesman said the cabinet would discuss the issue on
Friday. He declined further comment.
A U.S. embassy spokesman said Washington planned to licence the
technology to build two similar plants in the United States, but it
first wanted to ship a small amount of plutonium to Belgium or France
to simulate the procedure in a test facility.
"The only thing that would come, would be a test amount to build the
test assemblies, process them, send them back to the U.S., run them
through a plant and say here's what we get, here's how much it costs,
here's what the process would be if we build this plant and here's
what we get as a result," Joseph MacManus told Reuters. "That's the
whole package right there."
DISARMAMENT ROLE FOR BELGIUM
MOX combines plutonium and uranium oxide recycled from spent nuclear fuel.
In a letter obtained by Reuters, Verhofstadt responded to the Greens
by saying Belgium should play a part in disarmament.
"Belgium's agreement in principle would constitute an important
signal that our country is prepared to contribute to the
international nuclear disarmament programme, reducing the current non-
proliferation risk and the problems involving the physical protection
of nuclear material," he wrote.
Verhofstadt said Washington was considering recycling the plutonium
at Belgonucleaire, a Belgian subsidiary of French state nuclear
reprocessing firm Cogema, or at a plant in France.
It would take the United States several years to build its own MOX
plant and Belgian approval of the U.S. request would speed up the
destruction of weapons-grade plutonium by four years, Verhofstadt said.
The Greens advocated storing the plutonium underground in the United
States. Shipping it to Belgium for recycling would create transport
risks and went against the government's decision last year to phase
out nuclear power, they argued.