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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Invitation to Proliferate

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, with the two superpowers locked in a spiraling nuclear arms race, how to get rid of the crown jewels in their arsenals was the last thing on the minds of Moscow or Washington. But now, five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration is reversing two decades of bipartisan national policy on a troubling legacy of the nuclear standoff: how to prevent even a gram of more than 100 tons of plutonium, left over from thousands of dismantled weapons, from falling into the hands of terrorists or nuclear wannabes.

Obtaining nuclear material is the hardest part of building a bomb; a clever physics graduate student can figure out the rest. Thus, any serious nonproliferation policy aims to make it as difficult as possible to obtain plutonium. This has been the logic of U.S. policy that has resisted civilian reprocessing -- chemically separating plutonium from spent fuel.

Now, the U.S. Department of Energy is proposing a new $2.3 billion, 20-year program, altering plutonium policy, which critics fear will open the door to commercial use of plutonium. The plan calls for disposing of scraps of plutonium by vitrification -- mixing plutonium with uranium and highly radioactive wastes, fusing the mixture with glass and burying it in steel canisters.

But the bulk of the plutonium from bomb cores, called "pits,'' would be combined with uranium oxide to create mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, which would be burned in civilian reactors. In the end, more plutonium would be produced, seemingly undercutting the nonproliferation goal.

The new policy is the result of extensive study, including a National Academy of Sciences report examining 34 methods of plutonium disposal. Although the change is the product of complex scientific, political, security and economic considerations, another reason appears to be a pledge of Russian cooperation in getting rid of its weapons-grade plutonium.

In a Dec. 3 letter to President Bill Clinton, a prominent group of nuclear scientists contended that if the United States only pursued the vitrification option, Moscow might not get rid of any of its plutonium, instead storing it in usable form. Given the precarious control over Russian nuclear material, that is a scenario the United States wishes to avoid.

But even within the government, the plan has been contentious. In a subsequently leaked memo to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, John Holum, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, contended that "The multidecade institutionalization of plutonium use in U.S. commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for U.S. nonproliferation policy.''

His fear is that not only Russia, but also Europe and Japan would view the use of MOX fuel in the United States as a sign that Washington's resistance to the commercial use of plutonium was easing.

U.S. officials reject the idea that burning MOX fuel puts the country on a slippery slope. Indeed, they insist Washington is holding the line because, unlike Europe and Japan, which reprocess plutonium from spent fuel in civilian reactors and thus create more plutonium, the United States would use only existing plutonium from dismantled weapons. Moreover, the officials say that Europe and Japan are helping Russia build a small MOX-fuel plant and, by setting tough conditions for safeguards, they can move Moscow away from any desire to reprocess.

But according to a State Department cable, the United States so far has been unable to obtain Moscow's agreement on strict conditions for the MOX option. The United States sought firm agreement for tough nonproliferation safeguards: that a new MOX fuel plant would be used only for excess plutonium from weapons; and that the resulting spent fuel will not be reprocessed at least until current excess plutonium is eliminated.

U.S. officials say they will press for such conditions and have support from Europe, Canada and Japan, who will build the small fuel plant.

More broadly, it is difficult to divorce the Russian stance on plutonium from the larger context of U.S.-Russian relations. Washington is pressing Moscow to ratify START II, which would reduce Moscow's nuclear arsenal to 3,500 warheads by 2003, even as it expands NATO . The combination rubs Russia's nose in its own weakness. In the Russian mind, such issues go to the heart of the country's quest to redefine its role as a great power and are not easily resolved.

Finally, there is simply no "good'' answer to disposing of excess plutonium. The administration's two-track approach may pass the "least bad'' test. But to pass, the end result should be less, not more total plutonium. In any case, it is a dangerous deception to blur the fact that the divide between military and civilian plutonium is one of intention only, as the new policy does.

The economic value of plutonium use has changed radically since the Europeans and Japan sought endless plutonium fuel during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. Now, and for the foreseeable future, the world is awash in plutonium.

Placing plutonium under international control should be the preferred option. At a minimum, the administration should get a firm commitment from Russia that it will cooperate in the accounting of nuclear material, safeguarding facilities and not reprocessing any spent fuel from MOX plants until current stockpiles of separated plutonium are drawn down. It's almost enough to make one wax nostalgic for the bad old days of the Cold War.

Robert Manning is the author of "Back to the Future: Toward a Post-Nuclear Ethic.'' He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.