Sunday, August 24, 1997, p. C6.


Glenn Seaborg is nght on the mark in arguing that a U.S. program to dispose of its growing stockpile of surplus weapons plutonium "must be prompt, predictable, careful to avoid unnecessary controversy or delay and focused ... on the goal of national security" ["A Plutonium Warning From Its Discoverer," op-ed, Aug. 3]. It is therefore perplexing and disappointing that he endorses the preferred approach of the U.S. Department of Energy—conversion of most of the stockpile to mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for irradiation in U.S. nuclear reactors which meets none of these criteria and may well doom the program to failure. Mr. Seaborg's criteria really fit the Department of Energy's alternate approach, which DOE most likely will use only for the fraction of surplus plutonium that is chemically impure: immobilization in glass or ceramic, together with highly radioactive waste.

The Energy Department estimates that disposing of 50 tons of U.S. surplus plutonium as MOX fuel would take a decade longer than if it were immobilized. The MOX plan is also more likely to generate widespread public opposition, since it would require thousands of shipments of hazardous fuel to U.S. reactor sites.

Mr. Seaborg's central argument as to why the United States should use the MOX approach is that "Russuan leaders have made it clear" that they believe that immobilized plutonium is more easily retrievable and reusable than plutonium in spent MOX fuel. This is a political position without a technical foundation. Both the United States and Russia are capable of making high-performance nuclear weapons from the plutonium contained in either form. However, plutonium retrieval from either form requires the use of a large, heavily shielded reprocessing plant The most secure way to ensure that plutonium disposition could not be reversed would be for the United States and Russia to agree to a mutually verified shutdown of their reprocessing plants, something that the nuclear bureaucracies of both countries are loathe to do.

The production and use of MOX fuel also is likely to cost U.S. taxpayers substantially more than the immobilization of plutonium in waste. While Mr. Seaborg claims that this is merely a distracting "side issue," the undeniable fact is that in the current budget-balancing climate, the difference in cost between the two options—estimated to range from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars—cannot simply be ignored. There is little chance that plutonium disposition in Russia will take place without U.S. funding, but the prohibitive cost of the MOX approach increases the likelihood that Congress will not make any money available, which will lead to inaction.

Mr. Seaborg is right to argue that the United States should safely dispose of military plutonium as an example to Russia. We should show that it is cheaper and safer to mix surplus plutonium with the wastes from which it was originally separated than to embark on a grandiose and risky scheme to use it as fuel.


The writer is scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, which advocates directly disposing of plutonium as waste.

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