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Bury It, Don't Burn It: A Non-Proliferation Perspective
on Warhead Plutonium Disposal

Paul Leventhal
President, Nuclear Control Institute

Presented to the U.S. Department of Energy Plutonium Stabilization and Immobilization Workshop
Washington, D.C.

December 12, 1995


The Nuclear Control Institute welcomes this DOE-sponsored technical workshop on stabilization and immobilization of weapons plutonium (W Pu) because of the significant contribution it can make toward the ultimate non-proliferation objective of eliminating weapons-usable nuclear material, plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), from world commerce. The risk of theft or diversion of these materials warrants concern, as only a few kilograms in the hands of terrorists or threshold states would give them the capability to build nuclear weapons.1

Military plutonium disposition questions cannot be addressed in isolation from civilian plutonium issues. The National Academy of Sciences has urged that "further steps should be taken to reduce the proliferation risks posed by all of the world's plutonium stocks. military and civilian, separated and unseparated...."2 A similar point was made in a Rand Corporation report: "It is critical that countries pay attention to the proliferation threat from the civilian side if they want to maximize the non-proliferation value of dismantling U.S. nuclear weapons and those of the FSRs [former Soviet republics]. If countries ignore the civilian threat, they can compound the problem by making wrong choices in how to deal with military materials."3

The Clinton Administration has correctly identified the minimizing of civilian plutonium stocks worldwide as a major non-proliferation objective:

The United States believes that growing quantities of plutonium in international commerce present a threat to the nonproliferation regime. In countries where material control and accountancy or physical protection systems are not sufficiently rigorous, there is a risk of diversion or theft of such materials. In addition, even in countries with effective nonproliferation commitments, the presence of unneeded stocks of plutonium could raise security concerns on the part of neighboring countries. Accordingly, United States policy is not to encourage the civil use of plutonium.4

Decisions on the disposition of W Pu will have major effects on the future of plutonium use in civilian nuclear power programs. These decisions are being watched closely by plutonium fuel cycle advocates around the world. The nuclear industry has launched a full-court press, with nearly every major vendor re-designing its reactor system for potential use as a weapons-plutonium burner. In 1993, Congress mandated that the Department of Energy conduct several studies of various MOX options, including a review of reactor options and an assessment of the so-called triple-play reactor that would use weapons-plutonium MOX fuel to generate electricity and produce tritium for the nuclear arsenal.

Comparable attention and resources were not directed toward consideration of vitrification and other immobilization options. This situation led the National Academy of Sciences to make the following recommendation in its study this year of disposal options:

Since it is crucial that at least one of these options [MOX or vitrification] succeed, since time is of the essence, and since the costs of pursuing both in parallel are modest in relation to the security stakes, we recommend that project-oriented activities be initiated on both options, in parallel, at once. DOE should assign sufficient resources (both funding and personnel) to manage pursuit of both options in parallel.5 [emphasis in original]

One of the main goals of this workshop, therefore, should be to fulfill the NAS mandate by righting the imbalance between the MOX and vitrification disposal options and creating a more level playing field" that will help give equal consideration to the viability of non-reactor alternatives.

Vitrification and MOX as the Lead Disposition Options

Most experts agree with the conclusion of this year s NAS study that the two most viable options for disposing of plutonium recovered from retired nuclear warheads are the irradiation in reactors of mixed-oxide fuel made from this plutonium (the MOX option), and direct disposal of warhead plutonium by means of vitrifying it with high-level radioactive waste (the VHLW option). The Nuclear Control Institute regards the vitrification approach as posing fewer risks than the MOX approach with regard to diversion or theft of warhead material, reversal of the disarmament process, and other adverse effects on international arms control and non-proliferation efforts. Proposals for transferring warhead plutonium MOX fuel to third countries not now possessing nuclear weapons pose additional risks.6

To minimize proliferation and terrorism risks in the post Cold War world, we advocate that a symmetrical regime be developed to address the dual threat of military and civilian plutonium. Such a regime would place comparable obligations on nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear weapon states to meet the spent- fuel standard and to avoid production and use of separated plutonium in any form. A decision to dispose of warhead plutonium by means of vitrification or other immobilization technology would be an essential step toward achievement of such a regime.

Proponents of MOX disposition claim that vitrification technology is immature, speculative, and cannot be ready soon enough.7 This view is nearly universal in the nuclear power industry, despite being flatly contradicted by this year s NAS study on disposal options, which concluded that

[i]n terms of the crucial timing aspect of security, the current-reactor/spent-fuel options and the vitrification-with-wastes options are roughly comparable to each other (as well as superior to all other options). Under the most optimistic assumptions that are defensible, loading of W Pu into current-reactor types could begin between 2002 and 2004 and be completed between 2015 and 2025; loading of W Pu into waste-bearing glass logs could begin around 2005 and be completed as early as 2013."8

Accordingly, this workshop can summarize and begin to assess the range of outstanding technical issues related to VHLW options, in order to provide direction for a concerted R&D effort.

Effects of Disposition Choices on Civilian Plutonium Fuel Cycles

The 1994 NAS study emphasized the importance of the "Fuel Cycle Policy Signal":
[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.9

The Nuclear Control Institute believes that the vitrification option would send the right fuel cycle policy signal to the civilian nuclear sector and would be fully consistent with the Clinton Administration's September 1993 non-proliferation policy statement. The statement declared that "the 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."10

On the other hand, the MOX option, though it does not necessarily involve further reprocessing, would clearly encourage civilian use of plutonium, which in some countries like Japan even includes plans for reprocessing irradiated MOX fuel. The U.S. Government would be engaging in or sponsoring MOX activities for the first time on a commercial scale, legitimizing the use of MOX in civil nuclear power programs. Such a sea change in U.S. policy would confuse and complicate U.S. non-proliferation diplomacy. It would send the wrong fuel-cycle policy signal to Western Europe, Japan, and other non-nuclear-weapon state members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In our view, the MOX option sends the wrong signal in three ways. First, this option effectively declares that plutonium has an asset value, and that the energy contained within it should be viewed as a "national asset" (as the U.S. DOE expressed it) or even "national treasure" (as the Russians put it), when in fact plutonium fuel has been shown to be an economic liability.11

Second, the MOX option suggests that a commercial plutonium fuel cycle can be effectively safeguarded, when, in fact, it is becoming obvious that large-throughput plutonium plants face daunting safeguards problems.12

Third, the MOX option would be portrayed as giving credibility to the claim that plutonium recycle in light water reactors (LWRs) is essential to nuclear waste management at a time when direct disposal of spent fuel is looking increasingly attractive to utilities.13

Finally, the MOX option undercuts U.S. non-proliferation diplomacy directed at so-called "rogue states." If the U.S. actively pursues the MOX option, it will become far more difficult to deny nations of proliferation concern, such as North Korea and Iran, their "right" to civil use of plutonium. In our view, the only credible way to oppose the separation and use of plutonium in nations of proliferation concern is to oppose it comprehensively---that is, to oppose its separation and use in any nation for any purpose. Such an approach is effectively precluded if the U.S. insists upon retaining the right to use MOX fuel in civilian reactors, albeit for the purpose of weapons plutonium disposition.

Important Workshop Goals

This workshop should help point the way forward to near-term demonstration of technically viable vitrification/immobilization processes. Some technologies, such as Oak Ridge s GMODS, are at risk of being dismissed as smoke and mirrors" without first being allowed the kind of detailed assessment that has been devoted to the various reactor options. A number of promising technologies are to be outlined in presentations at this workshop, and deserve a fair chance in the disposition decision-making process.

This workshop also can provide the catalyst for closer cooperation with our Russian colleagues. Plutonium exists in enormous amounts and, in many cases, in the form of dangerous residues in both U.S. and Russian weapons production facilities. Though our attitudes on commercial use and final disposition of plutonium vary widely, stabilization of these particular military wastes is a pressing problem for both nations, and cooperation on technical solutions is in our mutual interest. For reasons of economy and safety, certain waste forms may lend themselves to stabilization and immobilization without partitioning of plutonium and other actinides, and could provide the basis for initial cooperation between the United States and Russia on non-reactor disposal options.

The Department of Energy is to be commended for convening this ground-breaking technical workshop, and Russian participation is most welcome and important. I look forward to the discussions of the next two days.

End Notes

1. J. Carson Mark et al., Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?, in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Report and Papers of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, Paul Leventhal & Yonah Alexander, Eds., New York: D.C. Heath, 1987, pp. 55-65; J. Carson Mark, "Some Remarks on Iraq's Possible Nuclear Weapon Capability in Light of Some of the Known Facts Concerning Nuclear Weapons," Nuclear Control Institute, May 16, 1991. Back to document

2. Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium [NAS 1994], p. 34. Back to document

3. Brian Chow and Kenneth Solomon, Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Materials, Rand Corporation Report, November 1993, p. xii. Back to document

4. U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Assessment of Urgent-Relief Acceptance of Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel, DOE/EA-0912, April 1994, p. 1-4. Back to document

5. Panel on Reactor-Related Options for the Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options, 1995 [NAS 1995], p. 417. Back to document

6. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "The MOX and Vitrification Options Compared: A Non-Proliferation Perspective," Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Waste Management and Environmental Remediation: ICEM '95, Berlin, Germany, September 3-7, 1995, pp. 535-539; Paul Leventhal, "What Should Be the Fundamental Basis of a National Plutonium Policy?," presented to the International Policy Forum on Management and Disposition of Nuclear Weapons Materials, Leesburg, Virginia, March 8, 1994. Back to document

7. Typical of such assertions is the claim by Pierre Goldschmitt, general manager with Synatom SA in Belgium, that [p]lutonium vitrification and disposal is only conceptual at this time: it must first be demonstrated technically and followed by practical industrial application reaching the same safety level as presently achieved by the mixed oxide industry. Its cost and feasibility remain to be assessed from a number of standpoints: criticality, long-term stability, radiation protection, environmental impact, economics and nonproliferation. Pierre Goldschmitt, Plutonium and Peace, the Point of View of a European, Paper Presented at the Nuclear Energy Institute International Uranium Seminar, Beaver Creek, Colorado, September 25-28, 1994, p. 5. Similar claims were posited by the American Nuclear Society in its recent report on plutonium policy: ANS Special Panel on the Protection and Management of Plutonium, Key Conclusions and Recommendations, 1995, p. 2. Back to document

8. NAS 1995, p. 413. The NAS study also noted that W Pu immobilization by vitrification in borosilicate glass represents a feasible technology that could meet the spent fuel standard, could be available in the relatively near future (within about a decade hence), and could potentially immobilize all of the nominal 50 tons of U.S. excess W Pu in glass in a relatively short time once the vitrification campaign had begun (i.e., in a few years, very likely less than 10). Ibid., p. 410. Back to document

9. NAS 1994, p. 149. Back to document

10. White House Fact Sheet, Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy, September 27, 1993, p. 2. Back to document

11. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium," Science and Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, pp. 1-31; Brian Chow and Kenneth Solomon, Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Material, Rand Corporation, November 1993. Back to document

12. Marvin Miller, "Are IAEA Safeguards on Plutonium Bulk-Handling Facilities Adequate?," Nuclear Control Institute, August 1990; "'Astounding' Discrepancy of 70 Kilograms of Plutonium Warrants Shutdown of Troubled Nuclear Fuel Plant in Japan," Nuclear Control Institute, May 9, 1994; Mark Hibbs, "Rebuild at PNC's PFPF Plant Will Cost Japan $100 Million," NuclearFuel, October 9, 1995, p. 11. Back to document

13. "Germans Likely to Terminate Two-Thirds of Their Post-2000 Reprocessing Deals," NuclearFuel, June 5, 1995, p. 4. Back to document

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