Belgium split by U.S. plutonium recycling bid

By Bart Crols

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

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."


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

07/12/02 08:06 ET