USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18


Questions over US-Russian Plutonium Deal

   In early February 2000, in a surprise move, the Russian government reportedly has reversed its former policy of insisting on using plutonium recovered from military stocks as reactor fuel (see Plutonium Investigation No.12-13, March-April 1999). According to a White House briefing, an initiative was concluded as part of the President's FY 2001 Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative. The DOE says it launched a $100 million collaborative program with Russia to reduce the proliferation challenges posed by Russian nuclear facilities and weapons-usable nuclear material, especially separated plutonium from the civilian nuclear power sector.

   This new initiative is a key element in a broad U.S. effort in Russia to end the production of fissile materials and reduce existing stockpiles, an effort that includes the Plutonium Disposition Program, the HEU Purchase Agreement, the Plutonium Production Reactor Agreement, and the Core Conversion Agreement. The Administration justifies the development saying "all of these activities, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars we are spending to improve fissile material security in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, reflect our deep concerns over the risks of theft and diversion of nuclear materials in the unique circumstances of the post-Cold War environment". A few days after the DOE announcement, the Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, according to the Washington Post, told visiting U.S. academics that "no negotiations" on such an agreement were being conducted, and that only preliminary talks had been held. Matthew Bunn, one of the key scientists involved in the plutonium disposition projects at Harvard University, said it appeared that the U.S. Department of Energy had been "too eager to claim an agreement before it existed".

For DOE Fact Sheet on the US-Russian deal see:

U.S. NGOs on Plutonium Disposition *

   "We are told that the MOX program is a non-proliferation measure. But under pressure from nuclear establishments in both countries (US and Russia), the goal of stabilization and immobilization of plutonium has been undermined by a program which threatens to push both of our countries into a plutonium economy. Money makes policy. The larger the investment into plutonium facilities under the auspices of a disposition program, the more likely it is that these facilities will continue to be used for other purposes once the disposition program is completed. Furthermore, it is apparent that international plutonium companies such as Cogema (France) and British Nuclear Fuels (UK), Ltd. are seeking to serve their own financial interests by pushing MOX."

   * extract from a declaration of a coalition of over 200 NGOs , released 15 June 1999, at the opening of DOE-organized hearings on the supplement to the Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS

The New Federal Agency NNSA - 'S' for 'Security' or for 'Secrecy'?

   As of 1 March 2000 a new federal agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, will assume management of DOE facilities still directly engaged in research and development on nuclear weapons. The agency will come into being as a result of accusations that lax DOE security allowed defense secrets to be stolen from Los Alamos National Laboratory (see section on nuclear sites later). Congress, in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 required DOE to create the agency to separate weapons R&D from its non-defense research programs.

   The new agency will be semi-autonomous, with the Energy Secretary having at least titular oversight. According to DOE's implementation plan, cleanup and environmental mangement at existing waste sites will continue to be carried out by DOE's Office of Management and Budget (OEM). However, "management of newly generated wastes at NNSA laboratories and facilities is the responsibility of the NNSA, but is not necessarily an NNSA function". NNSA may, the plan says, give management of the wastes to OEM, but the plan does not specify the arrangements for such an approach.

   When it created the NNSA, Congress also created the position of under secretary to oversee DOE's energy, science, and environmental management programs. DOE says that this under secretary will have the authority to close a site if a health or safety issue necessitates closure.

   Nevertheless, the reorganization of the DOE is open to serious criticism. Attorneys general from more than forty states signed a letter to Congress in September 1999, warning that the agency could override state control of environmental issues at the laboratories. Public-interest organizations fear that they will be cut off from their existing sources of information about laboratory activities. A danger of a different type is that DOE's civilian research programs will no longer be able to benefit from research on nuclear weapons. As of early February 2000, the under secretary for national security, who will lead the new agency, had not yet been named. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is interim leader. Dr. David Michaels, DOE assistant secretary, will become under secretary for the energy, science, and environmental management programs.

Confusion about ARIES

   "According to an LANL document, up to 80% of the pits do not need to go through the new technologies. The ARIES (Advanced Recovery & Integrated Extraction System) line appears to be necessary only for those "bonded pits" where the plutonium has to be chemically separated from the other pit parts. In this case, the labs are testing a pyro-processing technology rather than relying upon the liquid acid chemical separation technology. The MOX industry does not like this dry process. If MOX is to happen, ARIES appears totally incapable of producing MOX-able fuel. Liquid Acid Processing will happen. It is unclear how this applies to the ceramification option which is actually just an adaptation of MOX technology but substitutes titanate ceramics for most of the uranium oxide that is mixed with plutonium in the case of MOX."

Don Moniak of Serious Texans against Nuclear Dumping (STAND)

   "One of the technical challenges being addressed as part of the ARIES is the reduction of gallium in the plutonium oxide form produced from some of the pits. In the event that the ARIES should encounter developmental difficulties in reducing gallium to acceptable levels, an alternative process for the removal of the gallium would be to dissolve and purify the plutonium oxide using a glove-box-sized aqueous process. The process has been used successfully in the past: however, this process would produce larger quantities of radioactive liquid wastes."

   Extract from DOE letter to Congressman Spratt regarding future plans at the SRS, dated 6 January 1998

Weapons Plutonium Inventories by Nuclear Processing Plant

Rocky Flats
12.9 tonnes

11.0 tonnes

4.5 tonnes

Los Alamos
2.6 tonnes

Savannah River
2.1 tonnes

21.3 tonnes

Figures are open to question as different DOE sources indicate different quantities

Breakdown of Plutonium in the Disposition Program

   Based on an analysis of a DOE chart issued in July, 1999, Ed Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute has tried to explain the breakdown of the ‘excess' military plutonium. He judges that the 33 tonnes cited by DOE for excess weapons-grade plutonium suitable for MOX is a "nominal" figure and includes material that may be declared excess in the future, but does not correspond to the current excess stockpile. Also 7.5 tonnes of plutonium in irradiated fuel has been on the excess plutonium list since the list was first released, despite the fact that it does not really belong there. But it is not considered part of the 17 tonnes slated for immobilization. The blend-down and shipment to WIPP of the 3.1 MT of pyrochemical salts from Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site was evaluated in the Rocky Flats Management of Plutonium Residues and Scrub Alloy EIS, and finalized in the Second ROD, dated 11 February 1999. Lyman points out that the burial of the salts requires a "safeguards termination limit variance" to allow residues with up to 10% plutonium concentration to be directly disposed of in WIPP, which is not a high-security facility.

   Another interpretation of the plutonium surplus breakdown is offered by Arjun Makhijani, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Washington, in response to a question by Pat Ortmeyer, Field Director of Nuclear Waste Issues for Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), using the DOE chart figures:
     Clean-metal into MOX = 25 tonnes
     Impure metal, oxide, fresh fuel, etc. = 9.5 tonnes for immobilization.
     This total of 34.5 tonnes are in the US-Russian agreement.

Additional surplus plutonium, not part of the agreement is:
     Impure metal, oxide, fresh fuel, etc. = 7.4 tonnes for immobilization.
     Plutonium in irradiated fuel = 6.9 tonnes (to HLW repository, no immobilization, just packaging)
     Scraps, residues = 0. 6 tonnes to HLW repository
     Scraps and residues = 3.1 tonnes dilute and send to WIPP.

   The total surplus plutonium is stated to be 52.5 tonnes. Of this 52.5 tonnes, 38.2 is weapons grade and 14.3 is non-weapons grade, ie fuel or reactor grade. A DOE 21 March 2000 letter explains that "...the disposition program includes plutonium oxides but does not include the spent fuel and waste (scraps, residues)." Nevertheless, the August 1999 chart excludes oxides and includes spent fuel. In this letter, DOE only restates that there is a difference in these charts, but does not explain why they are different.