USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

Plutonium Disposition - Milestone Developments

   The 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.

   In 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.

   The 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.

   Within 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.

   Another 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.

   In 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".

   Then 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.

   The 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".

   For 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".

   Researchers 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".

   The full NAS study may be accessed via the NAS web site at

   NAS 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.

   Hazel 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.

   By 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.

   By 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 for disposition.

   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")

   In 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.

   A 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.

   Both 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.

   By 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 underestimate.

   On 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".

   Although 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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