The Weekly Standard, 10/21/2002, Volume 008, Issue 06
By Henry Sokolski
Why is the U.S. government risking the spread of
plutonium around the world?
AFTER 9/11, keeping plutonium out of the hands of
the world's Saddams and bin Ladens (who, with only 10 pounds of this
reactor- generated stuff, could flatten lower Manhattan) would seem
to be an urgent task. Tell that to the federal bureaucrats in charge
of plutonium disposal. The programs they have proposed, if allowed to
go forward, are not just leisurely, unnecessary, and expensive, they
actually will increase the risks of nuclear theft.
What's their plan? It's part of a deal--the least attractive part--that
the Clinton administration struck with Russia back in 2000. At that
time, Washington and Moscow agreed that within two decades each would
dispose of some 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium-- enough to make
over 13,000 Nagasaki-sized bombs. One way to do this--suggested in the
agreement--was to mix this material with other radioactive waste to
make it too dangerous to fool with. Another, which the Russians insisted
upon, was to fashion the plutonium into reactor fuel and use it in nuclear
power stations, again, to make it too hot radioactively to handle.
Both approaches are long-term solutions. In the near term, the surest
way to keep this material from hostile hands is simply to strengthen
security at the few sites where it is stored. This avoids the risk of
illicit diversion that comes with additional transport or handling.
Meanwhile, the classified hemispherical warhead shapes the plutonium
is currently in could be made far less attractive for redeployment simply
by smashing them flat at the storage sites. Later, after additional
research is completed, one could mix this weapons material with other
nuclear wastes and vitrify the stew into glass logs for final storage.
This involves some risk because additional processing and transport
is required. Once completed, however, this procedure would substantially
reduce any chance of theft.
In contrast, making the plutonium into reactor fuel is guaranteed to
give nuclear thieves a field day. It requires trucking tons of weapons-grade
plutonium from existing storage sites to planned fuel fabrication facilities
in the United States and Russia. The material must then pass through
thousands of additional hands to be fashioned into fuel, shipped again,
and stored and loaded at selected power sites. Throughout this process,
which will take 20 to 30 years to complete, tons of weapons plutonium
will be handled and in transit. At any point along the way, just 10
misplaced or stolen pounds of this material could be fashioned into
a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Moreover, the nuclear kindling
it will be turned into--known as mixed oxide fuel or MOX--is not all
that much more difficult to make into bombs itself.
Why would anyone choose to do this? Well, the Russians made us do it.
Or at least, that's the argument. For years, Moscow has been trying
to get the United States and its allies to subsidize the bloated nuclear
industrial complex run by Minatom, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy.
Their most recent proposal has been to take in spent nuclear fuel from
Asia and Europe and reprocess or chemically strip out the plutonium,
which could then be turned into MOX reactor fuel. Minatom already has
a commercial reprocessing plant and plenty of nuclear workers. There's
only one problem: The plan is insanely unprofitable. Not only is MOX
far more expensive than common uranium to use as reactor fuel, the Russians
need $1 billion they don't have just to build a MOX fuel fabrication
For obvious reasons, Minatom has yet to find private investors for
this pitch. With the administration's proposed plutonium disposition
program, though, Minatom won't need to. The required technology and
the billions of dollars needed to pull this scheme off will come directly
from U.S. taxpayers and the G-8 nations President Bush is hectoring
Why is the White House taking these risks? Partly to please Russia:
The administration is anxious to secure Vladimir Putin's help on missile
defenses, the war on terrorism, and the fight against Iraq. MOX disposition
is also favored by the Department of Energy and the national nuclear
laboratories. Now out of the bomb-making business, these organizations
have been itching to get back into nuclear power development. The kind
of machines they and the Russians want to make are breeder reactors
that burn plutonium and are extremely uneconomical (which is why U.S.
utilities dropkicked breeders 20 or more years ago).
More important, these breeder systems and the plutonium they burn and
make would be just as vulnerable to nuclear theft and terrorism as MOX
used in regular reactors. That's why 25 years ago, President Ford decided
to defer commercial use of plutonium entirely. Every president since
has seen the sense of backing this policy. Now, however, the Department
of Energy wants to cooperate with Russia on "proliferation resistant"
breeder reactors and to "reassess" the merits of deploying
plutonium-fueled reactors in other nations. Congress, meanwhile, primed
by lobbying, is poised to approve nearly a quarter of a billion dollars
as a down payment to get the MOX program into high gear.
As a lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted two weeks ago,
moving ahead with the MOX disposal effort or helping others work on
breeder reactors is a "gift to the world's terrorists." Instead,
we need to secure surplus plutonium in as few spots as possible and
eventually dispose of it as nuclear waste. This may not please the Russians
or Washington's fans of high-tech make-work, but it is the right thing
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy
Education Center in Washington, D.C., and author of "Best of Intentions:
America's Campaign Against Strategic Weapons Proliferation" (Praeger,