US Lags in Disposal of Weapons-Grade Plutonium

February 2nd, 2011 - by admin

Celia Sampol / DC Bureau – 2011-02-02 22:17:47

Little Progress Disposing of 34 Metric Tons of Surplus Weapons Grade Plutonium

WASHINGTON, DC (January 26, 2011) –Too slow, too expensive, too risky: the multi-billion dollar Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) program, under construction at the Savannah River Site, continues to be controversial. A technology chosen by the United States in the mid-1990s to contribute to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, today it is being held out as a solution for America’s energy future.

In 1996, the US-Russian Independent Scientific Commission on Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium was put in place to propose options to decrease risks of nuclear proliferation. In the framework of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) signed by the United States and Russia, the two countries had indeed committed to dispose of 34 metric tons of their surplus weapons plutonium to reduce the threat that this material could be stolen or diverted.

Professor Nikolai N. Ponomarev-Stepnoi was a member of this commission. During a conference organized by the National Academies and the US Institute of Peace on January 19 in Washington, he explained that the final report presented by the commission in 1997 contained a two-approach proposal: “Using the plutonium in MOX fuel for burning once-through in currently operating nuclear power reactors, and vitrifying the plutonium together with fission products in glass logs for burial.”

These two approaches were supposed to be used in both countries. At the end of the 1990s, the United States eventually chose to give up the vitrification process and to concentrate on MOX. Russia decided, for its part, to stock the plutonium for disposition over future decades. The only condition of the deal was that the disposition in the two countries would proceed in parallel.

Russia is now planning to “recycle” the plutonium by using it in fast-neutron breeder reactors in order to “close the fuel cycle.” Russia “estimate[s] that the plutonium has an enormous strategic importance,” Ponomarev-Stepnoi said. “… We consider it as the future of our atomic energy starting in 2014.”

To Russia, this approach would allow the country to use all of its plutonium covered by the agreement, whereas the United States will use some of its plutonium as MOX fuel and immobilize the rest — which is not without risk because immobilized material could more readily be recovered for use in weapons.

The MOX option was too expensive for Russia and would have involved substantial additional costs mainly because there are not enough reactors in the country that can burn MOX fuel from weapons-grade plutonium. In the United States, it is also very expensive with no known civilian reactors that can handle the fuel.

But successive US governments have been supporting the MOX project. The French atomic giant Areva won the contract with the American company Shaw and is in charge of the construction outside Aiken, South Carolina. Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an independent branch of the Department of Energy, told at the end of the conference: “Every year we ask for a significant amount of money to do the construction of this facility. It’s moving on very nicely. We’ve spent already a billion dollar, and we have a few more billion to go (…) Now we are into finishing the construction and then we’ll have to turn this into operations.”

To him, it is not a problem that a French State-owned company runs a project dealing with US military weapons. “It is not a military project. It is a non-proliferation project. Areva provides very technical backup because the French have a similar facility and similar processes. So it’s really a great example, in my view, international work together on the business side,” D’Agostino said, eluding to the fact that France uses the same processes but with civil plutonium which is far less powerful than the military weapons-grade plutonium being used in the US.

The NNSA Administrator also swept aside criticism that the MOX program has been changing over the years from its original nonproliferation goal to a government-subsidized commercial venture.

John Ahearne, who served as the Chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and as a member of the independent commission, also backed the MOX project: “Russian colleagues put emphasis on energy use, but I am very skeptical about fast breeder reactors becoming the salvation. All the analysis that I have seen continue to indicate that breeder reactors are an uneconomic approach.”

But Thomas Cochran, from the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned Ahearne: “Why did you let the US government dump the vitrification proposal and go with the slower, more expensive MOX proposal?!” He said, “Fifteen years later we have not vitrified anything and/or sent anything into MOX so on the plutonium side you really accomplished very little.”

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