Plutonium Disposition - Milestone Developments
current US plutonium strategy clearly develops out of earlier policies
that were in favor of (US) plutonium use for weapons, but opposed to
commercial use for power production. In an ironic way this clear distinction
is now in the process of being reversed as a result of a series of disarmament
initiatives with Russia.
the 1970s the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner of DOE, produced
desk studies on plutonium fuel use, the most prominent of which was
the Generic Environmental Statement on Use of Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX)
in Light Water Reactors (GESMO) issued in 1976. The GESMO project was
terminated in 1979 following the national policy decision not to use
MOX plutonium fuels. A completed commercial scale reprocessing plant
at Barnwell, South Carolina, was mothballed at the same time. The West
Valley, New York, reprocessing plant, a commercial venture belonging
to Nuclear Fuel Services, operated only from 1996-1972. It was shut
down due to serious environmental and financial problems. A reprocessing
plant at Morris, Illinois, never operated because of technical flaws.
current so-called "plutonium disposition" strategy dates from early
1992, under the Bush administration, and an accord dubbed the "Safe
and Secure Dismantlement" (SSD) initiative aimed initially solely at
Russia's nuclear weapons arsenal and fissile materials stockpile. The
initiative set off a series of options studies by government departments
and agencies, exploring the technical, diplomatic, and potentially commercial
implications of what began as a nonproliferation bilateral agreement.
barely a year of the 1992 accord, studies began to emerge. The US Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) looked at the implications of licensing
US commercial reactors if they were fueled with Russian origin ex-military
plutonium. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported
in September 1993 that both the use of plutonium in fuel and the immobilization
of plutonium in waste are technically possible, but the jury remained
out on the economics of the options. The OTA report, "Dismantling the
Bomb and Managing the Nuclear Materials", was critical of the government's
lack of a "clear mission", and warned that utilities themselves were
cautioning against using surplus weapons plutonium as they feared it
was likely to re-ignite public opposition to nuclear power.
set of studies, begun in August 1992 by DOE's Plutonium Disposition
Task Force, was released in July 1993. A DOE Fission Working group and
a Technical Review Committee backed plutonium re-use as MOX suggesting
that it was the "most practical and economic alternative evaluated".
They did not, however, consider the vitrification or other disposal
options, which reduced the usefulness of their views. Whereas a Congressional
Research Service paper for lawmakers, "The Nuclear Weapons Complex Alternatives",
issued in February 1992, had concluded that blending separated plutonium
from former military uses with high-level waste and managing it as a
waste form was a feasible option.
a 27 September 1993 address to the United Nations General Assembly,
focused on nonproliferation, President Clinton outlined the US plutonium
position aimed at banning the additional production of plutonium (and
high-enriched uranium [HEU]) and discouraging the excessive accumulation
of plutonium in separated form. Until very recently, the United States
has not efficient action to put this policy into effect; the stock of
separated plutonium continues to accumulate. Nevertheless, shortly after
the speech, on 7 December 1993, the then energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary,
launched DOE's "Openness Initiative", involving the release of previously
classified official data. This initiative led to the publication, in
February 1996, of a wide-ranging report, "Plutonium: the First 50 Years,
United States Plutonium Production, Acquisition and Utilization, from
1944 to 1994".
in January 1994, what has become the operating blueprint for disposition
policy -"Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium" - was
released by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) after
eighteen months of research. The National Security Council had requested
that the report be prepared.
NAS Committee on International Security and Arms control (CISAC) warned
bleakly that the accumulation of plutonium represented "a clear and
present danger". In its assessment of MOX recycle technical options,
it asserted, however, that "the need to deal with excess weapons plutonium
should not drive decisions concerning the future of nuclear power".
the longer term, the committee urged that options for disposition of
plutonium be designed to meet a "spent-fuel standard" - making this
plutonium as difficult to acquire and to turn into weapons as the much
larger and growing quantity of plutonium in irradiated fuel from civilian
reactors worldwide. The spent fuel standard should be met "as quickly
as possible", while maintaining the strictest standards of accounting
and security and ensuring protection for the environment, safety, and
health. The US government adopted the spent fuel standard proposal,
as a matter of importance, within a few months. The committee also coined
the term "stored weapon standard", MOX made from military plutonium
and the plutonium itself should be stored to the "stored weapons standard"
all along the processing path.
In another conclusion the NAS said that vitrification raised "fewer
security risks in handling than the MOX option, because the process
of mixing plutonium with High Level Waste would be easier to safeguard
than the more complex problem of fabricating MOX".
calculated that adopting either the MOX strategy or the vitrification
option to convert plutonium to the spent fuel standard would cost between
$1 billion and $5 billion for the 50 tonnes of "excess" weapons plutonium
expected to become available in the United States by 2005, as a result
of disarmament agreements. Commenting on the report's implications,
NAS plutonium panel chairman, Wolfgang Panafsky said in a memorable
phrase: "The world is condemned to having to baby-sit this material
for at least another decade".
full NAS study may be accessed via the NAS web site at http://www.nas.edu
produced a related study in July 1995, on the specific MOX reactor related
recycle options. The 1994 NAS report set in train another series of
reports and initiatives on disposition policy. Already public/private
consortia such as that based around the Washington Public Power Supply
System (WPPSS) were developing projects. WPPSS's "Isiah Project" - backed
by research laboratories including Battelle Pacific Northwest centered
in a plan to experimentally fuel with MOX some incomplete or otherwise
redundant reactors at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
O'Leary was less sanguine. She was quoted in the Denver Post, 29 March
1994: "Some people think that plutonium is a very valuable commodity
which could enter the market place. I think that's balderdash". Shortly
thereafter one prospective industrial consortium headed by ABB-Combustion
Engineering said it would defer plans to finance, build, own and operate
two multipurpose MOX-burning reactors at Savannah River until DOE had
decided upon its long term disposition options.
the summer of 1994, the formal process of consultation on the emergent
disposition strategy was underway. On 21 June, using the traditional
means, the DOE published in the Federal Register, the government's notice
board, its Notice of Intent (NOI) to solicit comments from the public
on the scope of a proposed Programmatic Environmental Impact Assessment
(PEIS) on the storage and disposition of weapons usable fissile materials.
It is characteristic of the long-drawn-out US system of public consultation
- and publication of relevant documentation to an extent probably not
matched anywhere else - that even the "pre-decisional" text of the NOI
for the PEIS was issued for public comment.
November 1994 a DOE plutonium issues panel had released yet another
report, on "Environmental Safety and Health Vulnerabilities Associated
with the Department's Plutonium Storage", which listed thirty-seven
storage, direct disposal, immobilization, and reactor acceleration options
On 1 March 1995, President Clinton announced that
38.2 tonnes of weapon grade plutonium were to be declared surplus to
US defense needs. The amount was significantly lower than the 50 tonnes
suggested in earlier governmental statements. A debate over the new
figure arose subsequently. (See "Breakdown
of Plutonium in the Dispositon Program")
February 1996, shortly after DOE issued its path-breaking plutonium
openness document revealing the government plutonium inventory of nearly
100 tonnes, the DOE issued the PEIS for its draft Stockpile Stewardship
and Management strategy, which discussed the demands that would be made
in the future on certain major DOE sites, including Los Alamos and Lawrence
Livermore Laboratories and Pantex, Savannah River, and Oak Ridge's Y-12
plant. They would find it necessary to take a more aggressive role in
future plutonium management as a result of the downsizing implications
of DOE plans.
draft PEIS on the "Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile
Materials", covering Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory,
Oak Ridge, Pantex, Savannah River and NTS was issued at the same time.
In the Storage and Disposition document the options canvassed for plutonium
disposition were immobilization in glass or ceramic form; deep borehole
disposal in immobilized form; or introduce into reactors as MOX.
the nuclear weapons labs and the processing sites from this point onwards
engaged in a serious competitive battle to secure political favor in
support of their respective roles in future plutonium management, with
jobs being a key driver. The PEIS estimated the job situation at the
major DOE sites by 2005 as follows: Oak Ridge 18,000; Savannah River
16,500; Hanford 14,000; Idaho 7,000; NTS 3,800; Pantex 3,600.
August 1996 DOE had issued another study, "A Technical Summary for Surplus
Weapons-Usable Plutonium Disposition". One initial finding suggested
it would take between twenty-five and thirty-one years and cost between
$1.78 billion and $2.09 billion to consume the surplus weapons-origin
plutonium as MOX in existing light water reactors. By contrast, vitrification
undertaken in existing facilities would take nine to eighteen years
and cost around $1.81 bn. The lower-end estimate of ceramic immobilization
was $1.8 bn, carried out over nine to twenty-one years. Other possible
options were judged to cost a lot more, electro-metallurgical transmutation,
for instance, $3.43 bn over thirteen to twenty-two years, if it worked.
A powerful coalition of non-government groups including the Nuclear
Control Institute, Greenpeace International and the Union of Concerned
Scientists challenged the economic analysis of the MOX option as a serious
1 October 1996 a draft "Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment
of Weapons- Usable Fissile Material Storage and Disposition Alternatives",
prepared jointly by the DOE offices of Arms Control & Nonproliferation
and of Fissile Materials Disposition, was issued. It conceded that using
the MOX option "could be perceived as a change in the US fuel cycle
policy of not encouraging separation and recycling of plutonium" and
could encourage additional use. It added: "Use of MOX by the United
States might in some cases provide modest political cover for would-be
proliferent states to pursue and justify plutonium production capabilities".
the DOE study was careful to play down the proliferation risks, John
Holum, then director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA),
was unconvinced. He commented in a stinging memo of 1 November 1996
that if the United States adopted the MOX option "we would hear only
one message for the next twenty years: that plutonium use for generating
commercial power is now being blessed by the US (...) the overriding message
we will convey is that civil plutonium use is acceptable". He said that
he "recommended strongly" that the Energy Secretary reject the hybrid
(dual-track) option and select immobilization.
The two government bodies smoothed over differences
on the proliferation impact of MOX, allowing DOE to select the twin-track
MOX and immobilization strategy as the preferred alternative in its
Final PEIS on Storage and Disposition. Nevertheless, DOE felt it necessary
to comment in December 1997, when it released this version: "Although
it may be possible to make a nuclear weapon from irradiated commercial
reactor fuel, this can only be done with extreme difficulty by individuals
with a great deal of experience in handling and processing nuclear materials.
DOE believes that the disposition of weapons plutonium through the use
of MOX fuel in reactors would meet the Spent Fuel Standard in creating
a radiological barrier that makes the plutonium as difficult to retrieve
and re-use in weapons as in spent commercial fuel." DOE announced its
Record of Decision (ROD) on the Final PEIS in January 1997. As anticipated,
the ROD confirmed the dual-track.
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