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The Case Against Using Military Plutonium
as Civilian Fuel

Remarks by Paul Leventhal
Nuclear Control Institute

To a Symposium on
"Nuclear Material: A Clear and Present Danger"
The American News Women's Club
Washington, DC

March 12, 1998


Converting plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads into so-called mixed-oxide (or "MOX") fuel for commercial nuclear power plants is simply too expensive and too risky. This path to nuclear disarmament sends the wrong message to other nations. The message is that the recycling of plutonium as a fuel to generate electricity is OK. It's not.

Stimulating commerce in plutonium is a recipe for disaster. That's why U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy for more than two decades has been to not encourage and, where possible, to actively discourage the use of plutonium as reactor fuel.

The reason for this is straightforward. There is several times more civilian plutonium than weapons plutonium in the world. Most of the civilian plutonium remains "locked" in the highly radioactive spent fuel of nuclear power plants where it is inaccessible for use in weapons. If all of the world's spent fuel were "reprocessed" to extract plutonium, there would be commerce in thousands of tons of a material of which less than 15 pounds is needed to make a Nagasaki-type bomb. Since there's plenty of low-grade, non-weapons-usable (and cheap) uranium around to fuel power reactors, the United States has sought to discourage the use of exceedingly dangerous (and expensive) plutonium fuel.

Nonetheless, the Clinton administration has devised a "two-track" policy for disposing of weapons plutonium that includes turning most of the surplus plutonium into MOX fuel. The second track is to dispose of some of the plutonium by combining it with (and thereby "immobilizing" it in) highly radioactive waste. Proponents both inside and outside the government insist this two-track approach is the only way to win the cooperation of Russia, which loves plutonium and won't think of throwing it away. They also claim that those who oppose the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in a plutonium disposal plan "are relying on simple ideological positions."

But a one-track approach that treats plutonium as waste cannot be so neatly dismissed. It is practical. DOE acknowledges that immobilization can do the whole job, while MOX cannot. All surplus plutonium, pure and impure, can be immobilized in waste while only the purest forms can be turned into MOX fuel. The waste approach is fast, cheap and efficient, compared with MOX. Concentrating limited resources on validating immobilization in both the United States and Russia would help, not hinder, the pace and scope of the disposal effort.

MOX Takes Too Long

DOE's original studies show that the immobilization approach could get started seven years earlier, and be finished 13 years sooner, than the MOX approach. The sooner plutonium can be disposed of, the sooner we can make the arms control and disarmament gains of recent years permanent. Recent DOE analyses now project that the MOX program will start only a year after the immobilization program and that the two will finish at about the same time. But these are based on highly unrealistic assumptions about fabrication and use of MOX fuel, and should not be taken seriously.

MOX Costs Too Much

In the United States, assuming nuclear utilities continue to insist on fees to irradiate MOX fuel, and insist on receiving that fuel at a substantial discount over the price they would have paid for uranium fuel, DOE's own studies suggest that the MOX approach could cost as much as $2.6 billion---two and a half times more than the immobilization approach, estimated by DOE to cost just over $1 billion.

Additional subsidies to keep uneconomic reactors operating could increase even this cost substantially over the next 20 years. Moreover, within the last month, DOE has revised its request for MOX proposals to allow fuel fabricators to recoup all cost overruns, no matter how high they go. This risks the same sort of unbridled expenditures that characterized cold-war defense contracting.

In Russia, the situation is even worse. A joint U.S.-Russian study assumes a $45 billion total "life-cycle cost" for the MOX option in Russia, including reactors and associated facilities. The Russians insist that as much as $42 billion of this "might be offset by electricity sales." However, Russian utilities are now plagued by unpaid electricity bills. In fact, only about six percent of these bills are paid in cash. Another 20 percent are paid by barter. The remaining three-quarters are simply not paid at all.

Thus, tens of billions of dollars will probably be needed to underwrite the Russian nuclear power industry so that it can use MOX fuel. But from where? Russia will look to U.S. taxpayers to pick up this enormous tab. MOX advocates in Europe and Japan are rooting for the MOX approach in Russia, but they stand on the sidelines with their hands deep in their pockets.

MOX is Too Dangerous

Neither the United States nor Russia have had significant experience with MOX fuel in light-water reactors, the type of reactor used in commercial nuclear-power plants, and there is no experience anywhere with use of weapons-grade plutonium in MOX fuel.

Use of MOX fuel:

The Nuclear Control Institute is now preparing computer-simulation studies based on established codes that show what would happen in a catastrophic accident in which the reactor fuel melts and the containment dome is breached. Releases of these additional radionuclides would cause significant increases in the number of early fatalities and latent cancers from radiation exposure than would occur with conventional uranium fuel. We will present our analysis to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at such time as the process of licensing reactors for MOX use begins.

MOX Undercuts Non-Proliferation and Arms Control

The proliferation risks of the MOX option are substantial. It clearly encourages the civil use of plutonium, as Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum warned in a memorandum to then-Energy Secretary O'Leary in November 1996:

I recommend strongly that you reject the hybrid option and select immobilization. . . . U.S. decisions on plutonium disposition are inextricably linked with U.S. efforts to reduce stockpiles as well as limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The multi-decade institutionalization of plutonium use in U.S. commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for U.S. nonproliferation policy. In contrast, an immobilization-only alternative would have no proliferation downside for either the U.S. or for influencing Russia, and potentially could have important benefits in supporting our continuing efforts with Russia to secure its stockpiles of weapon-usable material. [emphasis added]

Under the dual-track approach, the U.S. Government will be engaging in MOX activities for the first time on a commercial scale, legitimizing the use of MOX in civil nuclear power programs. As ACDA Director Holum put it:

If the hybrid option is chosen, these countries [Russia, South Korea, and others] would hear only one message for the next 25 years: that plutonium use for generating commercial nuclear power is now being blessed by the United States. No matter how much effort we take in reducing these risks ... the overriding message that we will convey is that civil plutonium use is acceptable.

Such a sea change in U.S. policy will confuse and complicate U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy. It will send the wrong signal to Western Europe, Japan, and other non-nuclear-weapon states.

The MOX option also presents greater risks of diversion and theft of plutonium primarily because of the fuel-fabrication stage, a process that is difficult to safeguard effectively, and because of the need to transport MOX fuel long distances to reactors. Uncertain verification could severely limit the trust nations place in an international nuclear arms reductions and nonproliferation regime. Hijacking of a MOX transport in Russia could raise the risk of nuclear terrorism.

What About the Russians?

A key argument used by two-trackers is that if the United States does not pursue the MOX option at home, it will sacrifice whatever influence we may have on the course of the Russian MOX program. This simply doesn't make sense. The U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament process is fundamentally bilateral in character, and the United States will always have substantial influence in the areas of safeguards, security and verification, whatever the means of disposal.

Moreover, the United States possesses the ultimate tool for exerting leverage on the Russian plutonium-disposal program---money. There is little question that ultimately the United States will bear most of the financial burden of Russian disposition activities.

European nations have aggressively promoted the MOX option, but their enthusiasm dwindles when the issue of financing comes up. France and Germany have magnanimously offered to build a pilot-scale MOX plant in Russia, but not to finance any of the $300 million cost.

The United States, on the other hand, is voluntarily abandoning its prerogatives by displaying extreme timidity in dealing with Russia on plutonium issues. If the United States continues to acquiesce in Russia's desire to pursue MOX, it could lose what leverage we already have. Since the MOX technology that Russia and the United States would acquire is of European origin, U.S. participation in fundamental technology and design issues would automatically be marginalized.

The better approach for the United States is to promptly demonstrate an immobilization technology that it can offer Russia when the European MOX proposal falls of its own economic weight.

This approach is dismissed by two-trackers as unrealistic, but the fact remains that the United States has not made a serious attempt to make immobilization financially attractive to Russia. Russia's top nuclear official at one point put a price tag of $2.4 billion on 100 metric tons of plutonium---not an astronomical sum in U.S. national security terms for inducing Russia to directly dispose of its surplus plutonium without use of MOX fuel.


The United States and Russia should take the all-important first step toward plutonium disposal of converting the metallic plutonium cores of dismantled weapons (known as "pits") into an intermediate, unclassified oxide form. They should work cooperatively to develop a mutually acceptable and verifiable technology for pit conversion, and to insure secure storage of the converted material. Conversion to oxide is required for both the MOX and immobilization approaches. Thus, this step should represent common ground on which Russia and the United States, as well as MOX and immobilization advocates, can agree.

If an impasse over MOX ensues, then safe and secure storage of pits, and the plutonium oxide resulting from their conversion, may be all that can be achieved for some time. This initial goal should become a high priority for U.S. disarmament diplomacy with Russia.

If the Russians remain determined to pursue the dangerous MOX disposition path because of economic ignorance, misguided bureaucratic interests, and insensitivity to environmental and nonproliferation concerns, so be it. But it is unreasonable to expect Americans to pay for it, and foolish to demand that Americans follow the same course just to avoid shattering Russian delusions about the value of plutonium.

More information about plutonium disposition can be found on the Nuclear Control Institute website at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm.

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