MOX DISPOSAL OF SURPLUS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM: POLITICALLY EXPEDIENT, BUT DOES IT MAKE SENSE?Paul Leventhal
Nuclear Control Institute
Presented at the
Fourth International Policy Forum:
Management and Disposition of Nuclear Weapons Materials
Lansdowne Conference Center
February 12, 1997
DOE's "dual-track" approach to disposing of U.S. excess weapons plutonium professes even-handedness but signals a clear preference for MOX over immobilization:
- Promised two-year study period is out the door with Secretary O'Leary, replaced by a pledge to "implement both tracks, not just study them for two years" (Canter).
- DOE Record of Decision ("ROD") notes that immobilization can do the whole job, and is needed for at least 8 of the 50 metric tons, but "where we go and how fast we go is dependent on negotiations with Russia" (Canter).
- Thus, Russia (with a strong assist from European and Japanese plutonium advocates) is given a virtual veto over U.S. approach to disposal.
-- Russia's clear preference for MOX is being used to justify DOE's own preference for a "parallel" dual- track program.
-- MOX to be used for disposing of "good" plutonium (the pits---2/3ds of excess plutonium)
-- immobilization is reserved for "cats and dogs" (residues and scraps left over from DOE mismanagement of shut-down of weapons complex in mid-stream).
- No matter that a Joint U.S.-Russian [government] Plutonium Disposition Study concluded that the two sides "need not use the same plutonium disposition technology" and that "it is likely that the best approaches will be different in the two countries."
- No matter that ACDA Director John Holum, the government's top arms control officer, sent a letter advising Energy Secretary O'Leary "to reject the hybrid option and select immobilization," and warning that the MOX option "would set a very damaging precedent for U.S. nonproliferation policy" and "would be contrary" to this policy "and our long-term interests."
- DOE looks to a study by a joint commission of the U.S. and Russian academies of science ("Holdren-Velikhov Commission") for the final word. This study
-- clearly favors parallel, dual-track approach;
-- identifies "the largest obstacle to progress on plutonium disposition" as "financing and constructing" pit conversion and MOX fabrication;
-- flags "non-proliferation liabilities" of immobilizing weapons-grade plutonium in glass and extols the disarmament virtues of "irreversible reductions" inherent in reactor-grade plutonium in MOX spent fuel.
-- ignores the prohibitive cost of MOX immobilization in Russian VVERs---a cost projected by the joint government study to be $45 billion.
- All of this makes the plutonium and electrical-utility industries ecstatic:
--France declares a "symbolic success" for its longstanding commitment to recycling plutonium as MOX fuel;
--U.S. utility companies anticipate fat subsidies for uneconomical nuclear operations: "a perfect fit," as one nuclear utility executive put it, between utilities' needs to reduce the cost of producing electricity and the nation's need to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium.
But the question remains: does any of this make sense?
- MOX disposal may be the politically expedient approach to keeping industry happy and Russia at the table, BUT
-- Is it politically achievable in U.S.?
-- Is it economically achievable, in Russia or in the U.S.?
-- Even if the money can be found and U.S. domestic opposition quelled, can MOX disposition be implemented at the required scale in a reasonable time frame?
-- Are the safeguards and security risks of MOX fabrication and use manageable?
-- Are the safety problems of introducing warhead MOX fuel in U.S. and Russian LWRs being adequately addressed?
-- Does having access to reactor-grade plutonium in MOX spent fuel really make it appreciably harder for the U.S. and Russia to reverse the disarmament process than having access to weapons-grade plutonium in highly radioactive waste glass?
- When plutonium disposition finally gets past posturing and arm-waving to the tackling of devilish details, the answer to all of these questions will be a resounding "No!"
-- The only question remaining will be whether so much money has been wasted, time lost and opportunities squandered that it becomes impossible to get plutonium disposition back on track?
-- So let's answer the tough questions now and not squander an historic opportunity.
Is MOX disposition politically achievable in the U.S.?
- MOX use in domestic LWRs would reverse 20 years of U.S. anti-plutonium policy.
- Fourteen national organizations have formed a coalition to fight MOX disposal in U.S. LWRs once immobilization is successfully demonstrated.
- A fight will be waged at the community level as well as in the nation's capital.
- A rough-and-tumble licensing process ahead: safety, security, and safeguards issues are all on the table---the biggest fight since Clinch River.
- A fatal blunder by U.S. utilities to allow anti-plutonium advocates to join forces with anti-nuclear activists.
Is it economically achievable, in Russia or in the U.S.?
--DOE's official cost estimate of using 5 existing LWRs at 100% core MOX-burning, and building a MOX plant, was originally $1.2 billion.
--But if $500 million in subsidies must be paid to utilities (as DOE is now prepared to concede) and if utilities demand free MOX fuel (rather than pay DOE the equivalent LEU cost of $820 million, as DOE originally hoped), the total tab comes to $2.56 billion.
--But even this estimate is ridiculously low because subsidy payments reasonably can be expected to be in the billions once the full duration and costs of MOX- burning are realized.
--By comparison, the most viable immobilization option, "can-in-a-canister," is projected by DOE to cost $1.5 billion less than DOE's current estimate for the MOX option, and to begin 7 years sooner and be completed 13 years earlier.
-- U.S.-Russian Joint Study assumes a $45 billion total "life-cycle cost" of the MOX option, including reactors and all the associated facilities.
-- As much as $42 billion of this "might be offset by electricity sales"---although Russian utilities are now plagued by unpaid electricity bills.
-- Thus, tens of billions of dollars will probably be needed from elsewhere---but from where? And this estimate just covers Russia's 7 operable VVERs and completion of construction of three more VVERs for the MOX mission. If Ukrainian VVERs have to be used to meet pu-disposition goals (see next item), that would be extra.
Can MOX disposition be implemented at the required scale in a reasonable time frame?
-- DOE projects it will take until the year 2027 for 5 LWRs, operating at 100% MOX core with U.S.-fabricated MOX fuel, to burn 50 tons of excess pu in MOX form.
-- An unrealistic projection because DOE now concedes reactors will have to begin operating with one-third MOX cores and work toward eventual goal of 100%--- although most utilities will not want to go to 100% MOX core.
-- Of the 37 reactors responding to DOE's solicitation of interest for MOX-burning, only 5 have operating licenses that extend to 2027; of those, only 3 are licensed to operate beyond 2029.
-- Higher costs will be encountered if for safety reasons MOX fuel burn-ups are required to be lower than burn-ups typically achieved with LEU fuel.
-- Higher fission-gas pressure and hot spots on the fuel cladding are experienced at higher burn-ups with MOX fuel. The French MOX program was recently dealt a setback when a MOX fuel pin ruptured during a high burn-up experiment.
-- A double dilemma for utilities:
--- If only one-third-core MOX burning can be achieved, there will be severe operational headaches in terms of re-load fractions since core-management schemes will become more complicated.-- DOE currently projects burning 3 MT pu a year in 5 PWRs operating at 45,000 MWD/MT with full-core MOX.
--- If 100% MOX core can be achieved, the operator will face an economic penalty to whole core because of lower burn-up for MOX than LEU--- presumably requiring an additional Federal subsidy.
-- If only one-third core MOX can be achieved, only about 1.25 MT pu can be burned in 5 reactors at the same burn-up rate. It should be clear that higher costs and completion delays will be the inevitable outcome---assuming there are reactors available for the MOX burning mission.
-- By comparison, DOE projects that 5 MT/yr of excess weapons plutonium could be immobilized using the can- in-a-canister method.
-- All of the MOX operational and cost problems would be compounded in Russia, where 100%-core MOX burning is not regarded as realistic.
-- To keep pace with 5 U.S. reactors operating at 100% MOX core, Russia would have to operate all 10 of its VVERs at 30% MOX core and utilize some 11 Ukrainian reactors, as well. If one-third core MOX burning is the most either side can achieve, costs and duration of the programs will increase accordingly.
-- If high costs and popular opposition stop MOX disposition in the U.S., and plutonium is immobilized at the rate of 5 MT/yr, there seems no way Russia can keep pace without immobilizing its plutonium.
-- To meet the objective of achieving parity with the U.S. in terms of the amount of weapons pu remaining, Russia will have to dispose of 100 to 150 MT more plutonium than the U.S. Immobilization seems the only realistic approach to this task.
Are the safeguards and security risks of MOX fabrication and use manageable?
- MOX and immobilization approaches both have risks associated with them.
- Immobilization more manageable because there are fewer process stages and less plutonium hold-up in inventory.
- Safeguards claims in DOE non-proliferation assessment are highly misleading because they include ESARDA/IAEA data on 99.9% accuracy of input and output measurements but exclude data on measurements of in-process inventory, including hold-up---which Los Alamos studies show can be off by 25% to 30%.
- Japan's recent $100 million cleanout of pilot PFPF plant (700 kg pu/yr throughput), to come up with 70 kgs of plutonium held-up over 5 years, demonstrate how costly and risky MOX safeguards are.
- A comparable 5 MT/yr throughput plant, used for "moxifying" warhead plutonium, could have an annual hold-up of 100 kgs/yr---translating into a measurement uncertainty of 20-30 kgs/yr. That means as much as 66 to 99 kgs would have to be "missing" from inventory (difference between input and output) before inspectors could suspect a diversion with the required 95% confidence and order a cleanout.
- That allows a lot of room for a knowledgeable insider to divert plutonium from the process stages of the plant and to defeat surveillance and containment systems to remove plutonium from the plant.
- Neither the U.S. nor Russia are immune to insider threats. To introduce this additional risk in Russia, where nuclear security concerns already abound, is particularly imprudent. Transport and storage of MOX fuel at reactor sites poses additional risks of theft. All of these risks are minimized or avoided altogether with immobilization.
Are the safety problems of introducing warhead MOX fuel in U.S. and Russian LWRs being adequately addressed?
- Neither the U.S. nor Russia have had significant experience with MOX fuel in LWRs, and there is no experience anywhere with use of weapons-grade plutonium in MOX fuel.
- Use of MOX fuel
--reduces the stability of reactor cores (smaller delayed neutron fraction), so that operators have less time to respond to rapid changes in the state of the reactor;
-- increases the severity of certain accidents, such as those that cause a sudden cooling of the core;
--increases the in-core inventories of such extremely toxic radionuclides as isotopes of plutonium, americium and curium by a factor of 5. In a catastrophic loss- of-containment accident, these additional radionuclides could increase the consequences by anywhere from 10 to 50% and result in additional thousands of latent cancers.
- American utilities have to expect that these issues will be raised by intervenors in licensing proceedings and that the adequacy of emergency planning zones around reactors designated for MOX use will be challenged.
Does having access to reactor-grade plutonium in MOX spent fuel really make it appreciably harder for the U.S. and Russia to reverse the disarmament process than having access to weapons-grade plutonium in highly radioactive waste glass?
- Holdren-Velikhov Commission does a disservice to disarmament by perpetuating the myth that reactor-grade plutonium is decisively less useful than weapons-grade plutonium to advanced nuclear states.
- In technical community, it is well understood that advanced U.S. and Russian weapons designs are "pre- detonation-proof"---that is, resistant to intense neutron backgrounds of a nuclear battlefield and consequently impervious to the relatively high concentration of neutron- emitting Pu-240 in reactor-grade plutonium.
- Therefore, reactor-grade pu can be used in modern warhead designs with minimal modification.
- To suggest otherwise serves as a smokescreen to conceal serious problems with the MOX option:
--Most serious is Russia's determination to reprocess irradiated MOX fuel.
--Since reprocessing is needed to extract pu from either glass or spent fuel, the verified absence of reprocessing plants on either side would be the most effective barrier to rapid rearmament.
--Russia's insistence on reprocessing makes that barrier impossible to achieve.
--Given Russia's ability to use reactor-grade plutonium in modern weapon designs, it borders on the absurd to proceed with warhead plutonium disposal as long as new separated pu continues to be produced.
- The MOX option makes no sense.
- It only makes a straightforward plutonium-disposition mission complicated, costly, time-consuming and dangerous.
- Immobilization makes sense, and it is consistent with U.S. supreme interests to offer financial inducements to Russia to dispose of its excess plutonium in a parallel, single- track immobilization program with the United States.
- In 1993, Minister of Atomic Energy Milhailov put a fissile-content value of $2.4 billion on 100 metric tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium, and said in 1996 that the cost of producing the plutonium was probably five times greater than the production cost of HEU. This suggests a price tag of $12 billion---the same amount the U.S. is paying Russia to blend down 500 tonnes of HEU into LEU.
- In comparison with the trillions spent on the Cold War, paying Russia $12 billion to immobilize its excess weapons plutonium is a bargain---and a fraction of the likely cost of underwriting MOX-burning in Russian reactors. To date, the U.S. has made no cash offer to Russia for immobilization comparable to what is being discussed for MOX or to what has been agreed for HEU down-blending.
- We should not waste any more time in pursuing the MOX option, and we should be exploring a cash offer to Russia that will encourage Russia to consider immobilization seriously. The time for that may have to wait until the MOX option, for the reasons outlined above, is abandoned in the U.S. But given the importance of moving ahead with plutonium disposition, it should come sooner.
The points raised in this outline are further elaborated in a forthcoming article with Dr. Edwin Lyman in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April, 1997.
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