First quarter of 2002

The US rules out the immobilization option for plutonium from "surplus" weapons

WISE-Paris, 29 January 2002

[Posted 29/01/2002]

The US Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, announced on 23 January 2002 that the Department of Energy (DOE) has decided to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium by transforming it into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for use in US nuclear reactors. At the same time, the DOE made it clear that it intends to abandon the option of immobilizing plutonium. The decision follows a review of several plutonium disposition alternatives begun by the Bush administration in early 2001.

This latest decision is a reversal of the policy pursued under the previous administration. In its Record of Decision for the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement issued on 14 January 1997, the Clinton government adopted a "dual-track" approach to dispose of 50 tons of weapon-grade plutonium in two steps: disposition of 34 tons in the first round and a further 16 tons in a second step. The first phase was to involve the conversion of about 25.6 tons of plutonium into MOX reactor fuel and immobilizing some 8.4 tons in radioactive glass logs for long-term storage in order to prevent its potential use in nuclear weapons.

The DOE policy change complicates efforts to meet the commitment dates specified in the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement signed by the US and Russia in September 2000. The Agreement commits each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium but does not stipulate how each side was to eliminate their plutonium stockpiles. Both the US and Russia have been exploring the possibility of using the material as fuel. DOE's decision is now to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, of which the formerly planned 25.6 t, 6.4 tons previously planned for immobilization and 2 tons of "Future Declarations of Plutonium" which were not covered in the first agreement. The remaining 2 tons, which were planned to be immobilized because of a high level of impurities, would be directly sent to waste storage.

The DOE stated that ruling out the immobilization option as one of the disposition routes would save the US almost $2 billion in funding, decrease plutonium storage costs, and facilitate the closure of the DOE's former nuclear weapons complex sites.

The DOE's new plan has been immediately attacked by independent experts as expensive and uncertain. The initiative "runs headlong into a minefield of legal and economic hurdles, as well as posing safety and security risks", according to Tom Clements, executive director of the Washington DC based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), an independent research and advocacy center specializing in nuclear proliferation issues. "The Bush administration has summarily rejected the cheapest, safest and most secure option - the 'immobilization' approach of mixing plutonium with highly radioactive waste for direct, final disposal", said Clements. "Over eight years of DOE research documenting the feasibility and cost effectiveness of immobilization has been thrown out of the window in deference to pro-plutonium forces in the nuclear industry and bureaucracy. This decision was formulated behind closed doors and is a full reversal of earlier DOE policy on plutonium disposition, a policy developed through an open public process".

By canceling plans to operate an immobilization facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, DOE's decision will mean that the 2 tons of surplus plutonium that cannot be turned into fuel will be sent to another site still to be determined. This approach is legally inconsistent with the DOE's January 2000 Record of Decision on plutonium disposition, and thus faces major hurdles under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the NCI added. Furthermore, Clements indicated that the lengthy delays in implementing the September 2000 Agreement resulting from the DOE decision "will require indefinite storage of plutonium at the Savannah River Site in a facility not designed for secure, long-term plutonium storage".

The NCI pointed out that federal budget legislation forbids building and operating a plutonium MOX fuel fabrication plant in the US if Russia does not also build and operate a MOX plant. The DOE said that the Departments of State and Energy would work with their Russian counterparts to achieve the disposition of Russian surplus plutonium through the MOX process. However, according to Clements, "Russia's plutonium disposition program is going nowhere. The Russian government cannot begin to shoulder the enormous costs involved, and despite years of fund raising efforts by DOE, western governments have proved unwilling to foot the bill. The US cannot proceed with its MOX program until Russia does so, and we have no idea when or if that will ever be possible".

Lastly, the DOE's new projected costs on plutonium disposition are also highly questionable. Last year, the DOE estimated that the US MOX disposition program would amount to $4.6 billion, with the cost of the "dual track" program at $6.6 billion. Now, the DOE puts its cost estimate at $3.8 billion. Bearing in mind that the program has already absorbed close to $700 million, only $3 billion remains for development, construction and operational costs, a figure, which Clements called "pure fantasy". These costs calculations assume for instance the export of the controversial German MOX fuel fabrication plant of Hanau which was definitely abandoned in 1995, 90% complete, before it ever operated.


NCI: See Home page, column "Latest NCI news", "NCI press release.
DOE: (National Nuclear Security Administration)

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