THE PLUTONIUM INDUSTRY AND THE CONSEQUENCES FOR A COMPREHENSIVE FISSILE MATERIALS CUTOFF
President, Nuclear Control Institute
Working Towards a Nuclear Weapons Free World
Oxford Research Group Seminar
in cooperation with
Chinese People's Association for Peace & Disarmament
April 28-30, 1997
For China, the question of a fissile-material ban may be somewhat different than for most nations. Unlike other declared nuclear-weapon states, China may have cause for concern that its stockpile of nuclear-weapon materials is not large enough. China wants an arsenal sufficient to deter Russia or the United States and apparently is concerned that any U.S.-Russian agreement to enhance their ballistic missile defenses could deny China its present second-strike capability.
China is also in a rather different situation than a number of nations with advanced nuclear programs. First, it has no domestic civilian plutonium program to speak of---the result primarily of being a late entrant into the global nuclear power industry. Second, because its military stock of plutonium is relatively small, the growing "peaceful" plutonium stockpiles of its neighbors, Japan and India, look ominous to some Chinese, menacing to others. Within three years, there will be about eight times more weapons-usable plutonium in Japan's civilian nuclear program than the estimated four tonnes of plutonium in China's nuclear weapons program.
China, therefore, seems an unlikely supporter of the fissile-material cut-off proposal that is now on the table. As originally proposed by the United States and endorsed by mandate of the UN General Assembly, the "Fissban" would bar any further production of nuclear-weapon materials by the declared weapon states. But it would permit unlimited production by all states of weapons-usable plutonium and uranium so long as these materials are placed under international safeguards and declared for non-explosive use.
Thus, China must not only weigh the risks of accepting a permanent cut-off of its own military materials production while the United States and Russia are still re-negotiating their ballistic missile defenses. China must also weigh the military potential of Japanese and Indian unrestricted production of atom-bomb materials, dedicated for peaceful purposes and watched over by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Even if China can influence the outcome of the U.S.-Russian talks to its satisfaction and feel secure with the size of its existing arsenal, how confident could it be in a Fissban that would make the world safe for plutonium rather than from plutonium?
It is urgently important for China and all nations to focus on the civilian as well as the military side of a cut-off agreement. Yet, this is precisely what is not happening. All attention is now directed at weapons aspects. And talks are presently suspended because of sharp differences over whether a cut-off agreement should prohibit stockpiling of surplus military materials and whether it should be tied to larger, time-bound disarmament objectives.
But what of surplus civilian plutonium and the non-proliferation value of getting rid of it? After all, civilian stocks of separated, weapons-usable plutonium are about to eclipse the amount of plutonium in nuclear arsenals, and within 15 years civilian plutonium inventories will be about double present military ones. Yet, these matters are not even on the table, either in the UN Conference on Disarmament, which has the General Assembly's mandate to negotiate a Fissban, or in the NPT Preparatory Committee, where achievement of a cut-off agreement is held aloft as one of the grand commitments made by the nuclear powers in return for wide support of indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995.
In the wake of the Comprehensive Test Ban agreement, the difference between a partial and a comprehensive approach to nuclear disarmament should be clear to all. If a test ban must be comprehensive to be meaningful, why not a comprehensive cut-off of military and civilian fissile materials, as well? If "peaceful" explosions were excluded from the CTBT, couldn't ways be found to pursue military-significant testing? If "peaceful" plutonium and bomb-grade uranium are excluded from the Fissban, couldn't these materials be subject to conversion to weapons? Why is a less than comprehensive test ban intolerable, while a partial cut-off agreement seems perfectly acceptable?
There is a long and troubling history that has brought us to this present state of affairs. The original assumptions about the scarcity of uranium and the inevitability of the plutonium-breeder reactor have proven false, but the original dream of plutonium as the key to limitless energy has not faded. It is nurtured by a handful of powerful, government-run companies that seek to impose a plutonium-fuel economy on the world. In doing this, they have perpetuated two dangerous myths that do not die easily. The first is the myth of "continuing effectiveness of IAEA safeguards on plutonium" (a mantra repeated in Final Statements at NPT Review Conferences) that provides the legitimacy, the raison d'etre, for commercial use of plutonium. The second myth is that of the "unsuitability of reactor-grade plutonium for weapons." This myth persists, perpetuated even by pro-plutonium nuclear-weapon states like France and Russia, which know better.
China can be its own judge of whether it should not be concerned about Japan's forthcoming 50-plus tonnes of plutonium because it will be "reactor grade"; or whether it need not be concerned about continued production of plutonium in India because it will be under IAEA safeguards.
It is widely assumed that China is about to develop a plutonium industry of its own, beginning with a pilot reprocessing plant and evolving to a commercial breeder. These plans were announced in 1995 at the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum annual meeting. Japan may be the technology supplier, although British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and France's Cogema, both government-owned, are lining up for the business as well.
But does this make any sense for China? Surely China does not want to follow the Europeans and Japanese in repeating the costly and dangerous mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s. China is uniquely positioned today to guide its own nuclear destiny away from plutonium's industrial black hole and to play a pivotal role in guiding the rest of the world away from plutonium, as well.
There are a number of sound reasons for doing this. Plutonium-based fuel costs four to eight times more than abundant, non-weapons-usable, low-enriched uranium. Breeder reactors have failed everywhere they have been tried, including Britain, France, India and most recently Japan. Japan's pilot reprocessing plant just had a fire and an explosion, while the projected cost of completing its commercial reprocessing plant has recently more than doubled to $18 billion.
Japan recently spent $100 million to clean out a pilot plutonium fuel fabrication plant to come up with 70 kilograms of plutonium for IAEA inspectors. The plant is still short two-bomb's worth of plutonium. High officers at PNC, Japan's government-owned plutonium company, are facing prosecutions and demotions for withholding evidence and filing false reports about serious accidents at its pilot breeder and reprocessing plants. This is the same company that produced the infamous "Pluto-Boy" video, advertising plutonium as safe enough to drink and unsuitable for bombs. This is the same company that wants to sell reprocessing technology to China.
China would seem to have two options open to it. One is to follow its own fuel-cycle company, China National Nuclear Corp., down the same plutonium road paved by Europe and Japan. The other is to seriously explore the value of avoiding civilian plutonium altogether in China's domestic program and perhaps also to take the lead in championing a fissile cut-off treaty that will be comprehensive like the test ban. Such a bold course by China would have several positive effects:
- It would help to de-legitimate plutonium commerce, especially in Japan, which could not ignore a rejection of commercial plutonium by so close and powerful a neighbor, especially when Japan's plutonium program is in a state of crisis.
- It would help to increase understanding of the dangers of plutonium commerce among members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and others among 140 members of the 180- member NPT that have no significant nuclear programs of their own. A number of these nations are already protesting the passage of ultrahazardous shipments of plutonium and reprocessing waste through or near their territorial waters, en-route from France to Japan. A comprehensive Fissban would be non-discriminatory, and widespread support for it would pose a major challenge to the five countries that operate civilian reprocessing plants: UK, France, Russia, Japan and India.
- It would probably pose a major setback for ongoing plans to dispose of excess U.S. and Russian warhead plutonium as fuel in commercial nuclear power plants (and thereby to further legitimate commercial use of plutonium in non-nuclear weapon states), rather than disposing of it directly by combining it with highly radioactive waste. Russia, backed by Britain, France and Germany, is pressing the United States to reverse 20 years of anti- plutonium policy by engaging in a joint program to dispose of most of this plutonium as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light water reactors. The U.S. is now committed to a dual track approach involving both the reactor and immobilization options, despite the prohibitive costs of subsidizing U.S. and Russian utilities to use MOX fuel.
- It would inject China in a constructive way in the troubled South Asian nuclear rivalry. India has long demanded Chinese participation in any negotiated regional settlement with Pakistan. China's acceptance of a comprehensive Fissban would at least provide a basis for India and Pakistan both to cap their programs by cutting off further production weapons- usable nuclear materials. Playing such a positive regional role could help China win support in the United States for bringing into force a U.S.-China nuclear cooperation agreement that has been stalled for over a decade. The United States, which has avoided political confrontations with European and Japanese allies over their plutonium programs, nonetheless seeks to discourage (or at least not to encourage) civilian plutonium-use, and presumably would welcome a rejection of plutonium by China.
When President Clinton presented the U.S. fissile cut-off proposal to the UN in 1995, he said: "Growing global stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium are raising the danger of nuclear terrorism in all nations." This statement, standing alone, is accurate, but unfortunately, President Clinton limited the reach of his proposed production ban to nuclear- weapon materials only, at the strong urging of European and Japanese allies.
The U.S. cutoff proposal is a misnomer. It not only permits, but could encourage, further production of weapons-usable materials under international safeguards. These safeguards are unlikely to be effective in adversarial situations in which state operators or plant employees seek to "beat the system" and remove materials. The IAEA also cannot stop a "breakout" from safeguards by a nation and wholesale conversion of its safeguarded plutonium into weapons.
Adoption of a partial Fissban would have two detrimental effects. First, it would promote regional instability, since Israel would hardly reassure its neighbors---nor would India and Pakistan reassure each other---if the three each continued to produce atom-bomb material, albeit under safeguards. Second, the nuclear-weapon states are unlikely to reduce their excess stocks of military fissile material to low levels if non-nuclear weapon states like Germany and Japan are in the meantime accumulating superpower-size stocks of civilian plutonium. Thus, a partial Fissban could work both to stimulate building civilian stocks and to inhibit reducing military stocks of fissile materials.
Like a test ban, the only effective Fissban is a comprehensive one---covering civilian as well as military activities. China could play a pivotal role in achieving one if it felt secure with its present military stocks and saw it to be in its supreme interest to forgo commercial use of plutonium.
Finally, there will be the inevitable criticism that a comprehensive fissban is a "non- starter" and allows "the best to become the enemy of the good." To this, I respond that a partial fissban is fundamentally flawed and creates more dangers than it eliminates. When it comes to controlling atom-bomb materials, it is best to avoid "the good that is not good enough."
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