USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

A Brief Modern History of Plutonium Politics in the United States

   Between them, Republican President Ford and Democratic President Carter established the US government's no ‘civil' plutonium use policy in the late 1970s. This policy lasted until the late 1990s, when the US administration embraced plutonium recycle, but using plutonium from military stocks deemed surplus. This development is explored in detail later in this report.

   Essentially, concerns over proliferation problems resulted in presidential policy objections to plutonium reprocessing, and Congress in the 1970s backed up the presidential position, especially with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (USNNP) Act of 1978. Importantly this act established in law, extra-territorial, post-export control rights over the foreign reprocessing of US-origin nuclear fuel, thus giving the US administration power over the plutonium policies of other countries. This power proved to be controversial, particularly in respect to Japan, South Korea, and Euratom.

   President Bush issued a nonproliferation policy on 13 July 1992, which stated that the United States "shall not produce plutonium or highly enriched uranium for nuclear explosive purposes". DOE had announced such a move in 1991. Congress has periodically attempted to alter some aspects of federal plutonium policy, especially in proposing amendments to annual energy or defense authorization bills.

   Prior to policy decisions to pull the United States out of commercial plutonium use, some curious federal/commercial deals over plutonium ownership were struck. The DOE's web site records the following example in its compilation of plutonium stocks and locations, issued in 1994 under the open government initiative.

    "Mandatory government ownership of special nuclear material in the U.S. was ended on August 26, 1964 with the Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act. As a result of this law, plutonium produced in some AEC-owned and public utility-operated prototype reactors was transferred from the Government to the operators of the utility. For example, in 1974 the AEC transferred the ownership of 42 kg of plutonium to the Dairyland Power Cooperative. The Dairyland Power Cooperative operated the La Crosse boiling water reactor, an AEC owned reactor located on the Mississippi River near Genoa, Wisconsin. The balance of the plutonium was sold or donated to universities, hospitals, and other industry, primarily in the form of sealed sources". Extensive information on the size and location of the federally owned or controlled plutonium stockpile (as of 1994) may be found at:

   This site also details the quantities of US civil plutonium imported and exported between the late 1950s and the mid 1990s.

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