IMPACT OF U.S. PLUTONIUM DECISION-MAKING ON JAPAN'S PLUTONIUM PROGRAMConference on International MOX Assessment
Citizens Nuclear Information Center
October 24-25, 1996
Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley 1
As citizens of democratic societies, Americans and Japanese share a common privilege and responsibility: that of educating themselves on important issues, to ensure that their participation in decisions is informed and well-reasoned. Both Americans and Japanese have learned the hard way that abdicating control over nuclear power and weapons to self-interested corporations and bureaucracies can be highly dangerous.
It is all the more important today for both societies to be actively engaged in nuclear decision-making and to be asking tough questions of those making the decisions. Japan is at the threshold of a civilian plutonium economy that threatens to burden its citizens and the world with more plutonium than now contained in all the world's nuclear weapons. The United States is at the threshold of disposing of tons of surplus warhead plutonium and must find a way, in cooperation with Russia, that does not impose new dangers on the world. The nuclear challenges facing Japan and the United States are closely related and interconnected.
Brief History of the U.S.-Japan Plutonium Relationship
From the beginning of the nuclear age, there has always been a close connection between plutonium developments in the United States and in Japan. In the 1950s, the U.S. "Atoms for Peace" initiative, which was intended to steer the world away from military applications, produced a strange paradox: the declassification of military reprocessing (PUREX) technology and the launching of both the United States and Japan on a civilian nuclear course that included recovery and recycling of weapons-usable plutonium. In fact, the United States informed Japan during this early period that Japan could obtain low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for its power program from the United States only on condition that Japan agreed to recycle plutonium. Thus, it was the United States that pressured Japan into its initial commitment to plutonium, even though Japanese government and industry representatives invariably justify this program as the pillar of Japan's "energy independence."
In the 1960s, the United States, anticipating the construction of several hundred nuclear power plants by the turn of the century, pressed ahead with commercial breeder and fuel cycle development, further stimulating plans for application of these technologies in Japan.
In the 1970s, the United States reversed course for both economic and non- proliferation reasons. It halted domestic licensing of recycling of plutonium in light-water reactors and enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 (NNPA) to impose tighter controls over overseas processing and use of plutonium produced in U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel. These tighter controls caused severe political frictions with both Japanese and European allies, who insisted on continuing their plutonium programs with or without U.S. support.
In the 1980s, the United States abandoned its domestic commercial breeder, reprocessing and mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium fuel industries, but backed away from further confrontation with Japan and Europe over theirs. The 1980 final report of the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), a three-year review by the United States and other nuclear industrial nations, concluded that MOX-fuel development was necessary for long-term breeder development. The 1988 U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement gave Japan the green light to reprocess all U.S.-origin spent fuel over the next 30 years. Thus, the United States made clear that it was prepared to look the other way, and concentrated instead on winning European and Japanese support for other non-proliferation initiatives such as strengthening the export controls of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and shoring up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But at U.S. insistence, the agreement with Japan at least foreclosed air shipments of plutonium from Europe to Japan for safety reasons, and set the stage for the global controversy that was sparked by Japan's 1992 shipment of plutonium by sea from France.
Now in the 1990s, the end of the Cold War has opened a crucial new chapter. The need to dispose of tons of plutonium recovered from dismantled warheads is providing an important opening to American and overseas plutonium advocates to try to reverse the U.S. domestic ban on commercial use of plutonium and further undermine U.S. non-proliferation policy aimed at discouraging civilian plutonium technologies abroad.2 This is but one of several developments that have served to breathe new life into a declining industry.
The Plutonium Industry: Turning Adversity to Advantage
The great American author Mark Twain once responded to rumors of his demise with typical acerbic humor, by declaring "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." We hear similar rumors today about the demise of the plutonium industry, particularly in Japan, but invariably such reports have proven to be greatly exaggerated. Remarkably, major setbacks to the plutonium industry actually have worked to its advantage.
Frans Berkhout of the University of Sussex recently identified three "perversities" that have had the effect of buoying up the plutonium industry.3 First, major setbacks to breeder programs have led to the development of new missions for fast reactors, especially so-called "actinide partitioning" for waste-management purposes, that have kept these dangerous programs alive. Second, the success of anti-nuclear activists in blocking interim storage of spent fuel, most notably in Germany, has thrown desperate utility companies into the hands of reprocessors who are only too happy to take the spent fuel from the utilities for reprocessing. Third, as I just noted, the need to dispose of surplus military plutonium is fueling a major drive by plutonium advocates to "dispose" of the plutonium in the form of MOX fuel in reactors, rather than to dispose of it directly as waste.
To these three perversities, I will add a fourth: The success in killing off the commercial plutonium industry in the United States has shifted American public interest and political attention away from fuel-cycle proliferation concerns and thereby has given a "free ride" to Japanese and European plutonium programs that are derived mostly from U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel.
I will now address each of these perverse developments.
The Near-Death of the Fast Breeder Reactor
Every major industrial nation, except Japan and Russia, has abandoned the original vision of the fast breeder reactor (FBR) as an infinite source of energy that would create more plutonium fuel than it consumed and lead to a "plutonium economy" with electricity "too cheap to meter." The breeder has fallen victim to hard reality: Electricity demand and nuclear-power growth proceeded much more slowly than projected, and uranium, far from being exhausted by the end of the century, has turned out to be abundant and cheap. Electricity generated by FBRs will not be economically competitive with electricity generated by conventional nuclear-power plants fueled by low-enriched uranium for at least five decades.4 The proliferation risks of fast reactors producing enough nuclear-bomb material each year for thousands of weapons have been too great to ignore, as have the safety problems that have curtailed operations or forced the shutdown of every breeder started up.
As a result, the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and even France have cancelled ambitious plans for FBR fuel cycles. The Monju accident has put the entire future of the Japanese FBR program, and perhaps the entire plutonium program, into question.5 Unfortunately, these major setbacks have prompted fast-reactor technocrats to invent new missions for their obsolete reactor designs, such as "partitioning and transmutation" and other so-called "waste-management" research. France has relicensed its dangerous and uneconomic Superphenix FBR as a research reactor for work on actinide burning.6 A similar situation occurred in the United States, when in 1994 Congress cancelled the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (ALMR), the last vestige of the U.S. breeder reactor program. Argonne National Laboratory managed to muster political support for continued R&D on "pyroprocessing," a reprocessing technology developed specifically for the ALMR but re-cast as a new approach to "waste management." Yet, the end-product of pyroprocessing is a new waste form with unexplored characteristics, one which may not even be suitable for disposal in a repository.7
Anti-nuclear Opposition to the Interim Storage of Spent Fuel
Opposition by anti-nuclear groups to utilities' attempts to deal with spent fuel (dry storage, interim storage, etc.) has ground progress on permanent disposal options nearly to a halt in some nations, such as Germany and the United States. In Germany, utilities have begun seriously to consider reprocessing additional spent fuel even though they are no longer interested in burning MOX fuel. In the wake of violent opposition to spent-fuel storage at Gorleben, German nuclear electric utilities are considering contracts for long- term storage of their spent fuel in France, with eventual reprocessing by Cogema.8
In the United States, the spent-fuel dilemma is also having perverse effects. An early version of the Nuclear Waste Policy Bill proposed in the U.S. Senate last year provided for "urgent relief," including reprocessing options, for U.S. nuclear utilities running out of storage space for spent fuel. This provision was removed only after vigorous protest from the Nuclear Control Institute and other public interest groups.9 But it is likely that this provision, backed vigorously by British and French reprocessing interests, will reappear in nuclear waste legislation presented to the new Congress in 1997.
Disposition of Plutonium from Dismantled Nuclear Weapons
The big danger is that disposition efforts are likely to take the form of MOX fuel cycles, activating a civilian plutonium economy in the United States and giving a new lease on life to one in Russia. A technical summit on warhead plutonium disposition sponsored by the G-7 nations and Russia will be held next week in Paris. At that summit, Germany and France are expected to propose construction of a pilot mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium fuel plant in Russia. NCI and 11 other U.S. public interest groups have urged U.S. Secretary of State Christopher to propose a pilot plant in Russia for the demonstration of vitrification of plutonium for direct disposal as waste,10 but it seems unlikely at this point that the United States will express support for such a project unless an effective constituency for immobilization emerges. Building such a constituency on both a national and international basis should be a high priority for anti- plutonium activists.
Meanwhile, Cogema and British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) are actively pushing the MOX option in the U.S. disposition decision process. The most flagrant example is their proposal to build a MOX fuel plant at the Pantex nuclear-weapon dismantlement facility in Texas, where all surplus plutonium cores, known as "pits," are being stored. This so-called "swords-to-plowshares" approach also threatens to resurrect civilian spent-fuel reprocessing and recycle in the United States by providing a domestic MOX plant which could then be used for separated civilian plutonium after completion of the disposition mission. Indeed, Westinghouse has prepared a study proposing large-scale reprocessing of U.S. commercial spent fuel in the canyons of the Savannah River Site it operates for the U.S. Department of Energy in South Carolina. If this plan were to come into operation, Pantex could become a "plutonium magnet," eventually drawing in up to 300 tons of plutonium separated from power-reactor spent fuel.
Also, the Energy Department released a skewed economic analysis of plutonium disposition options.11 This analysis fails to include the "incentive" fees---essentially hidden subsidies for uncompetitive electricity generation---that U.S. nuclear electric utilities are certain to demand in exchange for use of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel in their reactors. These incentives, in the form of free MOX fuel and/or direct cash payments, could cost as much as several billion dollars over the life of the disposition program.12 NCI and 10 other public-interest organizations wrote to Energy Secretary O'Leary to request that the economic analysis be revised to reflect the true cost of MOX options,13 and there are indications that DOE will in fact revise the report.
On yet another MOX front, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is lobbying for the export of U.S. weapons plutonium to fuel CANDU reactors in Canada. The Los Alamos National Laboratory has applied for a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to export MOX fuel pellets to Canada for testing even before the Department of Energy has made a decision on what disposition technologies to employ. NCI, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace International have petitioned NRC to reject this export license on the grounds that it is premature and runs counter to U.S. non-proliferation policy.14
In our petition, we emphasize a special danger in demonstrating the feasibility of MOX use in CANDU reactors---the type of power reactors developed by Canada for domestic use and for export. CANDUS are operated in Argentina, India, Romania, and South Korea, each of which at some point had an active program to develop nuclear weapons. Non-Canadian CANDU operators are likely to seize on the MOX demonstration in Canada as a precedent to justify their own use of plutonium. It is imperative that the pending export be examined not simply as an isolated export of a small amount of plutonium for experimental purposes but within the larger framework of U.S. plutonium disposition and nuclear non-proliferation policy.
The Department of Energy fails to take these risks seriously: its draft "Non-Proliferation Assessment" of plutonium disposition technologies15 takes no firm position and attempts to rationalize and wish away the adverse "fuel cycle policy signal" that would be sent to the rest of the world if the United States implemented the MOX option. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences' 1994 study on warhead plutonium disposition warned that:
[P]olicymakers will have to take into account the fact that choosing to use weapons plutonium in reactors would be perceived by some as representing generalized U.S. approval of separated plutonium fuel cycles, thereby compromising the ability of the U.S. government to oppose such fuel cycles elsewhere. Conversely, choosing to dispose of weapons plutonium without extracting any energy from it could be interpreted as reflecting a generalized U.S. government opposition to plutonium recycle. Either choice could have an impact on fuel cycle debates now underway in Japan, Europe, and Russia.16
However, the Department of Energy draft assessment cavalierly dismisses this concern:
It is unlikely . . . that a decision to use MOX fuel in the United States would, in and of itself, result in substantial additional reprocessing and use of MOX fuel in other countries. . . . Use of MOX by the United States might, in some rare cases, provide modest cover for would-be proliferant states to pursue and justify plutonium production capabilities. Such cases are likely to be rare, and the impact of a U.S. MOX disposition program rather modest. . . . The potential impact of encouraging plutonium use could be mitigated by several steps. If this alternative is chosen, high-level U.S. officials should clearly outline how this approach fits within broader U.S. fuel cycle and nonproliferation policies.17
MOX advocates in Japan and Europe are likely to scoff at efforts by the United States to "spin" a decision to use MOX and almost certainly will seize upon such a decision to provide further justification for their own programs. In short, a noble effort to reduce the proliferation dangers of warhead plutonium is at risk of being captured for the ignoble purpose of reinvigorating civilian plutonium fuel cycles, with the net effect of increasing proliferation risks over the long term.
Washington: "Declare Victory and Get Out"
Success in killing off the plutonium industry in the United States in the 1980s shifted interest and attention away from fuel-cycle proliferation concerns. Congress, the Clinton Administration, and even some public-interest arms control groups today view non-proliferation as exclusively a matter of NPT and test-ban treaties and "rogue states." We no longer have the political base in Congress or the U.S. Government we once did for pushing U.S. non- proliferation efforts to discourage plutonium fuel cycles abroad, or for fighting off attempts to restore a plutonium industry in the United States.
A glaring example of this is the recent conclusion of the new U.S.-EURATOM nuclear cooperation agreement in 1995.18 This 30-year agreement effectively abdicates U.S. control over U.S.-origin nuclear material in the European Community and even allows it to flow freely into former East Bloc nations when they join the European Union. The United States will not be informed (let alone consulted) about future transfers of U.S.-origin material among nations within Euratom, including weapon-usable plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. The Clinton Administration simply did not consider fuel-cycle proliferation risks to be an issue in the EURATOM agreement, despite the fact that the nine nations with applications pending for EU membership all have experienced incidents of nuclear materials smuggling since the breakup of the Soviet Union. A Western European intelligence report "said that in 1992 there were 53 successful or attempted cases of nuclear smuggling from formerly communist countries reported to Western governments, while in 1993 there were 56 cases and in 1994, 124 cases. Seventy- seven of the 1994 cases involved plutonium or uranium."19
The U.S. Energy Department also recently authorized a list of European MOX fuel plants to fabricate fuel for Japan using U.S.-origin plutonium---despite the fact that Japan had not demonstrated a need for this fuel and despite an appeal by a coalition of public-interest organizations that a DOE decision be deferred until completion of the major reassessment of plutonium programs underway in Japan following the Monju accident.20
Fortunately, at the urging of NCI and the insistence of the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the U.S. State Department provided formal assurance that "the physical protection for MOX shipments [from Europe to Japan] will be no less rigorous than the measures applied to Japan's 1992 shipment of bulk plutonium oxide," and that the Clinton Administration would require an armed escort vessel for such shipments unless a satisfactory alternative arrangement, not yet envisioned, were developed.21
As you know, some Japanese electric utilities and some prefectural governments are beginning to question seriously whether there is any need for the program to recycle plutonium in light-water reactors.22 This program is now on hold after the Monju accident. The question remains: What will Japan do with the MOX fuel to be fabricated in and shipped from Europe, other than add to the dangerous domestic plutonium surplus Japan is already accumulating?
How can we improve the chances of Japanese and American citizens' controlling the destiny of their nuclear energy programs to put an end to separation and use of plutonium?
First, there is a need for more Japanese interest in U.S. developments related to plutonium policy. Certainly the U.S. government does not "control" Japan's plutonium program, but it exercises a profound influence over many crucial elements, including key processing and transportation stages. Also, U.S. plutonium policies which may not seem to relate directly to Japan can have major repercussions on the course of the Japanese plutonium program. Surely, a U.S. decision to dispose of warhead plutonium by use of MOX fuel would give significant aid and comfort to plutonium advocates here and around the world. And a decision by any U.S. utility to reprocess spent nuclear fuel would break a 20-year moratorium and undermine the strongest counter-example to use of civilian plutonium.
Second, there is a need for more Japanese citizens' interest in Japan's plutonium activities overseas. Recycling plutonium in light-water reactors may seem a dead issue for now here in Japan. But Japanese utilities are signing contracts with European MOX fuel fabricators, and making transportation arrangements with the cooperation of the British, French, and U.S. governments to ship MOX fuel back to Japan---whether that fuel is needed or not. All these activities are being paid for and should be resisted by Japanese electricity consumers.
Third, U.S. and Japanese citizens groups should present a united front against plutonium globally. Energy policy decisions are largely domestic, but decisions about plutonium carry global risks, making any nation's plutonium program a concern to every other nation. Those of us opposed to plutonium must oppose it everywhere, because the various national plutonium programs are tightly interwoven. Plutonium advocates staunchly support one another worldwide, attempting to forward their common economic interests. Plutonium opponents must show similar solidarity.
We must not relax our vigilance and activity on this issue. Plutonium programs and activities have a perverse way of coming back to life just when they seem to have been vanquished. There have been major setbacks and delays in plutonium programs within the last year or two. We must capitalize on these setbacks and not allow them to be turned to advantage by plutonium proponents.
I believe we can win this fight. Indeed, despite all the money and power on the other side, I believe we are winning. We will win if we simply persist in pointing out the economic, safety and proliferation risks of plutonium. In this regard, the Citizens Nuclear Information Center is to be commended for organizing and pursuing its International MOX Assessment Project. Thank you.
Note: Many of the documents cited in this paper can be downloaded from the Nuclear Control Institute's site on the World Wide Web [http://www.nci.org].
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End Notes1. Paul Leventhal is president and Steven Dolley is research director of the Nuclear Control Institute. Back to document
2. The Clinton Administration's 1993 non- proliferation policy stated that "[t]he United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium, and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes. The United States, however, will maintain its existing commitments regarding the use of plutonium in civil nuclear programs in Western Europe and Japan." White House, "Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," September 27, 1993. Back to document
3. Frans Berkhout, University of Sussex, presentation to NGO Meeting on Reprocessing, Washington, DC, October 4, 1996. Back to document
4. Brian Chow and Kenneth Solomon, Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Material, Rand Corporation, November 1993, p. 49. Even using mixed-oxide (MOX) plutonium fuel in conventional light-water reactors would be four to eight times more expensive than standard low-enriched uranium fuel. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium," Science and Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, Table 3, p. 6. Back to document
5. Pamela Newman, "Will Monju Become Japan's TMI?," Energy Daily, May 7, 1996, p. 1. Back to document
6. Ann MacLachlan, "New French Government OKs Restart of Superphenix After IHX Repair," Nucleonics Week, August 24, 1995, p. 3. Back to document
7. Committee on International Security and Arms Control, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options, 1995, pp. 219-221; p. 412. Back to document
8. Mark Hibbs, "German Utilities Said Close to Deal on Storage Contracts with Cogema," NuclearFuel, January 15, 1996, pp. 5-6. Back to document
9. Letter from Nuclear Control Institute to members of the U.S. Senate, April 25, 1996. Back to document
10. Letter from Nuclear Control Institute and 11 other public interest groups to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, October 3, 1996. Back to document
11. Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, U.S. Department of Energy, Technical Summary Report for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium Disposition, DOE/MD-0003, July 17, 1996. Back to document
12. Paul Leventhal, "Comments on Technical Summary Report for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium," Nuclear Control Institute, August 30, 1996. Back to document
13. Letter from Nuclear Control Institute and 10 other public-interest groups to Energy Secretary O'Leary, September 25, 1996. Back to document
14. Nuclear Control Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace International, In the Matter of Los Alamos National Laboratory (Export of MOX Fuel to Canada), Petition to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, October 3, 1996. Back to document
15. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Draft Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Plutonium Disposition Alternatives, October 1, 1996 ("Non-Proliferation Assessment"). Back to document
16. Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, 1994, p. 149. Back to document
17. Non-Proliferation Assessment, p. 90. Back to document
18. Paul Leventhal, Testimony before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, U.S.-EURATOM Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation, Senate Hearing 104- 481, February 28, 1996, pp. 291-300; Steven Dolley, "EURATOM's Nuclear Proliferation Record," Nuclear Control Institute, February 9, 1996. Back to document
19. Craig Whitney, "Smuggling of Radioactive Material Said to Double in a Year," New York Times, February 18, 1995, p. A2. Back to document
20. Letter from Nuclear Control Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace International to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, March 1, 1996. Back to document
21. Letter from Nuclear Control Institute to Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, July 23, 1996; Letter from Representative Benjamin Gilman to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, August 1, 1996; Letter from Strobe Talbott, Acting Secretary of State, to Representative Benjamin Gilman, September 6, 1996; Letter from Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary to Nuclear Control Institute, October 16, 1996. Back to document
22. "Utilities to Delay Plutonium Use in Light-Water Reactors," Asahi Evening News, January 24, 1996; David Hamilton, "Japan's Plutonium Program Won't Die," Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1996, p. A11. Back to document