A consortium of West German companies is set to sign an agreement with China this fall empowering the group to act as agent for the shipment of spent nuclear fuel from Western Europe to China, according to company sources.
Only days after 11 Western nations, including eight West European countries, agreed to tighten up on exports of nuclear technology, the sources told the Monitor that the Chinese had given them assurances that up to 5,000 tons of radioactive waste could be stored in China between now and the year 2000.
Industry officials said that about 50 tons of plutonium - used in the production of nuclear weapons - could be extracted from that amount of spent nuclear fuel.
Countries known to be interested in shipping radioactive waste to China include Austria, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy.
Crucial to the success of the plan - worth up to $6 billion in hard currency for China - will be the attitude of the United States government, which must approve shipment agreements between China and individual West European countries in cases where the spent nuclear fuel being shipped was originally enriched in the US.
Last week, at the initiative of the Reagan administration, representatives of 11 Western countries met in Luxembourg and agreed to restrict exports of nuclear technology, pledging to do more to prevent the spread of the capability to build nuclear weapons.
Italy and Switzerland participated. Austria and Spain did not. Of particular concern to the group, especially to the US, was growing evidence of cooperation in the nuclear field between China and Pakistan.
In January, China joined the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has failed so far to accept the organization's safeguards system on civilian nuclear plants and waste-storage sites or to sign the United Nations' Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The companies participating in the new consortium will be Nukem, a nuclear fuel firm; Alfred Hempel, a company long active in trade with the Soviet bloc; and Transnuklear, which specializes in transporting nuclear fuel.