U.S. to Start Burning Weapon-Grade Fuel

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to pressure Russia to step up its destruction of weapons-grade plutonium, the Clinton administration Monday embraced using U.S. plutonium in commercial nuclear power plants.

The decision ignited controversy over whether the administration, which has stressed nuclear material non-proliferation, is sending the world the wrong message by blurring the separation of military and civilian nuclear programs.

U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, with White House and Defense officials by her side, said a dual-track of both burning plutonium in commercial reactors as fuel and encasing it in glass for burial presents the best approach to reducing the plutonium stockpile worldwide.

The disposal was estimated to cost $2.3 billion.

"Today's action will reduce global nuclear danger," O'Leary told a news conference. She said by showing the United States is ready not only to store the plutonium in glass, but also burn it as commercial fuel "we will ensure that surplus plutonium is never again used for nuclear weapons."

The United States has an estimated 45 metric tons of excess plutonium in the form of warhead "pits" and plutonium residues from five decades of weapons production at seven facilities around the country. Plutonium remains highly dangerous for thousands of years and as little as 6 kilograms of plutonium is enough to make a nuclear bomb.

The Russians have expressed concern with U.S. negotiators that if the United States decides to dispose of its plutonium by encasing it in glass -- or vitrification -- it would be too easily retrievable. Therefore, they have been reluctant to move aggressively to destroy their plutonium stockpile.

"It's vital for our national security that we work in parallel with the Russians ... on plutonium disposition," said White House science adviser John Gibbons. This, in the end, will contribute to nonproliferation and not contradict it, he argued.

Gibbons said by committing to both vitrification and using commercial reactors to burn up the plutonium as a mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, the United States is "sending the strongest possible signal to the Russians and the rest of the world" that the U.S. is committed to destroying its plutonium stockpile.

It is not known how much of the plutonium would be disposed by combining it with uranium and burning it as a mixed oxide fuel. Officials said as much as two-thirds of the 45 metric tons is suitable for such fuel, while the rest, mostly residues, is too contaminated and likely would have to be encased in glass.

The Energy Department disclosed an interest in using commercial reactors a year ago and since then 18 utilities have said they would like to be considered. No U.S. commercial reactor uses MOX fuel at this time, although it is used in Europe.

The mixed oxide fuel would contain about 3 percent plutonium and the rest uranium. Although some modifications would have to be made to commercial reactors, it would essentially perform like the uranium fuel currently used.

But critics of the Department of Energy dual-track approach said Tuesday it could open the door to nuclear fuel reprocessing, which was abandoned in the United States in the 1970s. O'Leary disagreed, saying the plan calls for destroying plutonium not producing it.

The use of weapons-grade plutonium in civilian reactors "undermines a 20-year U.S. policy to avoid the civilian use of plutonium," said a coalition of nuclear critics and environmental groups.