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POLITICAL VS. SECURITY CONCERNS IN PLUTONIUM DECISION-MAKING
Paul Leventhal1Remarks Presented at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Nonproliferation Conference
February 12, 1996
I would like to commend Sandy Spector for putting together a very interesting panel on the subject of plutonium, and particularly, for managing to place this panel on the first day of the conference rather than the second---a definite sign of the growing awareness of the importance of the plutonium problem.
We have heard a full range of viewpoints, from those who regard plutonium as a valuable resource and an essential fuel and see the future of nuclear energy tied to plutonium, pretty much as it was perceived 20 years ago. And we also have heard more skeptical views on the utility of recovering plutonium from spent fuel and closing the fuel cycle for the future of nuclear energy, based on the diseconomics and the dangers of plutonium that have become apparent over the past 20 years.
What I would like to do is reach the areas of plutonium policy that our organization has been pursuing, primarily in the civilian sphere, but also the civilian/military linkages between efforts to halt the horizontal spread and the vertical growth of nuclear arsenals.
First, I would like to address what I regard as a fundamental dilemma that distorts plutonium decision-making in the United States. The dilemma is that political costs of facing up to plutonium's risks and seeking its elimination from commerce are perceived to be so high that the underlying substantial dangers of plutonium commerce are never directly and honestly addressed. As a consequence, large-scale civilian plutonium commerce is starting up in Europe and Japan almost by default. Three-quarters of the spent fuel being reprocessed today for these plutonium programs is U.S.-origin material obligated under U.S. law. Because of the built-in bias, as I perceive it, against causing political frictions with close allies, there is very little public appreciation in the U.S. or elsewhere of the danger if plutonium commerce yet proves to be unmanageable.
Russia's demand that mixed oxide (MOX) fuel be the preferred option for disposing of warhead plutonium, and making this demand the price of its cooperation with the United States in the dismantlement effort, further complicates matters, in my view.
Important U.S. decisions relating to plutonium, and the other nuclear explosive material, highly enriched uranium (HEU), are being made today, and really over the past 18 to 20 years, in primarily political terms in order to satisfy diplomatic imperatives. To cite another current example, security concerns associated with United States giving EURATOM virtually free rein over civilian use of the many tons of U.S.-origin plutonium and bomb-grade uranium in Europe are being given a lower order of priority than the political need to avoid friction with allies and trading partners---both the Europeans and the Japanese, who now own this material and whose cooperation the United States seeks on other matters. And these other political and trade matters are invariably regarded as more immediate and more compelling than the longer-term plutonium threat.
There is also the often-expressed belief in U.S. non-proliferation circles that the plutonium industry will fall of its own economic weight in due course if we only leave it alone, thereby achieving the desired end without paying the political cost. If this approach proves correct, the plutonium threat will fade away with the plutonium industry, and the alliance with Europe and Japan will be unsullied by arguments over plutonium. If this approach proves incorrect, however, civilian control over large quantities of atom-bomb materials may eventually be lost, with potentially unacceptable consequences. Whether this material falls into the hands of individuals or states, whether it is diverted surreptitiously or seized outright, it does not really matter; the outcome could be quite bad in any case---the destruction of entire cities, the blackmailing of governments, for example.
It is important that decision-makers analyze the possible consequences of their being wrong, as a reality check on the largely political decisions that dominate the nuclear non-proliferation arena today. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but non-proliferators, like surgeons, need to be particularly careful. The situation, right now, on the question of whether the U.S. should impose sanctions on China, given the disclosures of China's unsafeguarded nuclear assistance to Pakistan, represents a further instructive case in point, and I think it will be a very interesting one to watch.
Basically, two over-arching questions need to be answered. The first one is: What are the specific vulnerabilities of a commercial-scale plutonium industry? In particular, the technical and political limitations of international inspections---so-called safeguards---and of nationally-applied measures to protect against losses and thefts need to be independently examined. Civilian plutonium and highly enriched uranium are produced and processed by the ton but canbe used by the pound to make atomicbombs. So, little losses mean a lot.
The second question is: What are the possible outcomes if these materials are made into bombs? The answer to this question must include a frank assessment of the degree to which counter-proliferation really can be relied upon to prevent use of bombs that have already spread, whether to terrorist organizations or to states.
The answers to these questions are essential to the weighing of immediate political considerations against longer-term security threats. As long as the proliferation threat from civilian plutonium and bomb-grade uranium, particularly in nations that are deemed to pose, as the U.S. government often phrases it, "no proliferation risk" ("nations with impeccable non-proliferation credentials" is another term we often hear)---as long as the proliferation threat from their civilian plutonium and bomb-grade uranium activities remains vague and hypothetical, while the political choices are immediate and real, it is likely that political factors will win out every time. The track record clearly indicates that. The so-called "demonstration effect" of their plutonium and HEU programs on the direction of other nations' nuclear programs is given no serious consideration at all.
Nuclear proliferation is frankly boring, until it happens. Both Iraq and North Korea have taught us that. In the case of North Korea, here is an example of where non-proliferation could have worked and counter-proliferation did not work. Had there been an immediate response to the first indications in 1987 that North Korea was applying outside plutonium technologies and not abiding by its safeguards obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),non- proliferation diplomacy and sanctions might have worked at the time and headed off the crisis that brought us close to war six years later. In the case of Iraq, we did go to war to neutralize a military nuclear program provided mostly by our European allies with impeccable non-proliferation credentials, but Iraq's nuclear cadre and knowledge remain in place, absent only the fissile material needed to make nuclear weapons. So we see in both cases that these were close calls.
We have a situation today involving India and Pakistan, a nuclear passion-play that is still being played out. Direct European assistance to these programs has been a principal factor in the problems that we face today in that troubled region. And Iran, of course, is the latest test of European non-proliferation bona fides in terms of European response to U.S. leadership in trying to isolate Iran, particularly in the nuclear sphere.
The playing field needs to be levelled for resolving conflicting political and security priorities in making decisions on trade in plutonium and bomb-grade uranium.
Having said that, I would like to touch briefly on a few of the issues that we are looking at the Nuclear Control Institute. The impending U.S.-EURATOM agreement is one that I already have alluded to. In our view this agreement represents the final dismantling of the requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA), if Congress goes along with the agreement in its present form. After the enactment of the NNPA in 1978, its methodical dismantlement began with agreements with Scandinavian countries in the early 1980s in which the required individual consents by the United States on each request for transport of spent fuel for reprocessing was turned into a "programmatic consent," for the 25 or 30-year term of the agreement. We challenged that in the courts, but it was found to be a political issue; the judge never reached the substantive question.
This was followed by the U.S.-Japan agreement in the mid-1980s, in which individual consent rights, both for transport of spent fuel for reprocessing and for the reprocessing and return of plutonium from European reprocessors to Japan, were given away on an advance 30-year programmatic consent basis. And now we have the U.S.-EURATOM agreement, in which upon the insistence of the European negotiators, we have an agreement that, basically, tosses the NNPA out the window in terms of the types of consents that the United States is required to give for uses of U.S.-origin fissile material. This agreement totally abandons the consent rights framework of the NNPA, and it potentially opens up commerce in quantities of plutonium that will dwarf what is now contained in the military arsenals of the world.
Congress is just beginning to take a look at this agreement. It is a very disturbing one. It treats all of EURATOM as a single state; that could include the nine former East Bloc nations that have applied for entry into the European Union. If they gain entry, they will also gain admittance to EURATOM and will have the same rights and privileges to U.S.-origin fissile material as the existing EURATOM states. And the United States has no right to withhold consent to that arrangement on an individual-state basis.
And, on the subject of HEU, there are also problems with EURATOM. At the very time Congress is being asked to approve the U.S.-EURATOM agreement for a period of at least 30 years, EURATOM is busily negotiating with Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) to acquire a substantial supply of HEU to fuel research reactors that by law the United States is no longer able to supply, because of the operators' refusal to commit to conversion to low-enriched, non-weapons-usable fuel when it becomes available.
The EURATOM-operated reactor located in the Netherlands is a case in point of a reactor that can convert today---the fuel has been developed---but EURATOM refuses to do so. There are three other reactors, two in France and one in Belgium, and the problem with these reactors is two-fold. One is the prospect of a fresh supply of HEU coming into Europe from Russia at the very time when commerce in this material was close to being eliminated. This will pull the rug out from under an 18-year, U.S.-led international effort to convert all research reactors from bomb-grade uranium to low-enriched uranium (LEU). A second problem is about the U . S. $12-billion-dollar deal to acquire 500 tons of HEU from Russia for the express purpose of ensuring that it is blended down into a low-enriched, non-weapons-usable form. One has to wonder whether this EURATOM offer of hard currency to the Russians to acquire bomb-grade uranium will further whet appetites for Russian exports of this atom-bomb material. It is even more dangerous than plutonium in terms of making a crude World War II-type nuclear weapon.
The situation in Europe with regard to HEU is prompted by the insistence of a small group of scientists at the Technical University of Munich upon the construction of a new research reactor to use HEU rather than LEU. It would be the first departure from a global moratorium on the construction of HEU-fueled research reactors of over one megawatt power, other than in China and Libya. The U.S. government, for the political reasons I discussed in my introductory remarks, is finding it difficult to raise the HEU question, which the U.S. calls a domestic German issue, with the German government. The U.S. Government also appears to be finding it difficult to find its voice in expressing objections that can be heard to the MINATOM-EURATOM deal, either with Russia or the Europeans.
Political considerations are also dictating U.S. policy and work with friendly governments on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Convention which, as presently proposed, will not cut off the production of fissile material. It will simply insure that fissile material will continue to be produced, but under safeguards. We question how much of a stabilizing effect this will have regionally in areas like the Middle East and South Asia. Will neighboring states that have reason to fear one another be reassured by the prospect that atom-bomb material will continue to be produced, but under international safeguards? Yet to propose a comprehensive cut-off agreement to complement a comprehensive test ban treaty would fly in the face of European and Japanese commercial plutonium programs and therefore has been relegated to the trash heap of "non-starters" by the State Department.
And finally, the subject already discussed---the question of whether reactor disposal or vitrification is the appropriate way to dispose of warhead plutonium. It has been an uphill struggle to get the U.S. government to give serious consideration to a disposal option other than the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel option. It was not until the National Academy of Sciences, in its second report on plutonium disposition, recommended that MOX disposal and vitrification be pursued on parallel tracks because they both could be brought to fruition within a reasonable time-frame, and at a reasonable cost, that an effort was made to give vitrification at least a look. The assumption, however, is that the Russians won't stand for it, and therefore, why pursue this? It is counter-productive; it's a non-starter. It would be instructive if, for once, the U.S. government was viewed as being unyielding in opposition to MOX disposal and insistent upon direct disposal of plutonium as waste. Perhaps that would change things somewhat.
I'll close by making a brief comment on Frank von Hippel's observation about anti-nuclear activism in Europe and Japan forcing utilities to take a path that might, indeed, lead to reprocessing rather than direct disposal of spent fuel. My feeling is that industry is primarily responsible for the predicament it now finds itself in because it has failed to win the trust of the public. I see a basis for some optimism in Japan, where finally the Japanese public is waking up to many years of unremitting mendacity by the government-owned fuel cycle corporation in pitching a plutonium program to its people under terms that cannot be defended in economic or energy- security values. The fact that PNC, a government monopoly posing as a private corporation, went about lying and distorting the significance of a sodium-leak accident at the Monju breeder reactor leads one to question to what extent PNC will be forthright in the event it ever comes upon a plutonium loss. One must evaluate this industry in terms of its ability to police its own employees because they are to be entrusted with the acquisition and stockpiling of many tons of surplus plutonium. One could argue that all separated plutonium is surplus because of the vast uranium resource available to reactors.
The situation today in Japan is one for optimism. The utility companies have rejected government plans to build an advanced thermal reactor, which is a plutonium-fueled reactor, and now the two largest utilities are advising the government that they may not wish to support the Rokkasho commercial-scale reprocessing plant if the prospects remain as dim as they look right now for local, state, and prefectural officials agreeing to the licensing of MOX fuel in light-water reactors, given PNC's role in misleading the public on the safety of the breeder reactor. There is a similar steering away from plutonium by utilities in Germany as well.
In closing, it is important to note that while there is cause for optimism on the plutonium front, there is cause for growing concern on the highly enriched uranium front, which is something of a surprise because of the sudden failure of will by the United States to conclude an 18-year effort to eliminate commerce in bomb-grade uranium. However, I believe if the U.S. government takes a more forthright and security-based approach to these subjects, there may still be some hope that "atoms for peace" will not mean making the world safe for plutonium and HEU, that it yet could mean making the world safe from these atom-bomb materials.
1. Mr. Paul Leventhal founded the Nuclear Control Institute in 1981 and serves as its President. He has prepared four books for the Institute and has lectured in a number of countries on nuclear issues. He was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University's Global Security Programme. Previously, Mr. Leventhal served as Special Counsel to the Senate Government Operations Committee, 1972-1976, and as Staff Director of the Senate Nuclear Regulation Subcommittee, 1979-1981. Back to document