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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bury Plutonium Issue

The United States and Russia have declared about 100 metric tons of plutonium from military arsenals to be surplus, thanks to arms-control agreements over the last decade. Both Russia and the United States are on a course to use most of this surplus plutonium as a mixed plutonium-uranium oxide, or MOX, fuel for reactors.

The governments intend to put the material into a form that can no longer be used in nuclear weapons in order to reduce the threats of a black market in plutonium and the potential reuse of the plutonium in weapons. There is general agreement on the urgent need to take measures to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But will the use of plutonium in reactors accomplish this goal? Is it the best, safest, most economical way ofdoing so?

We believe it is not. Building a MOX-fuel fabrication plant would establish both an infrastructure of nuclear facilities and the financial interests for long-term "commercial" use of plutonium, in addition to contributing to the risk of proliferation.

In Russia, the public (outside the nuclear cities) has consistently opposed the construction of plutonium-processing plants since 1989. That opposition continues today. Here are some reasons why.

When the U.S.-Russian discussions on mixed plutonium-uranium oxide began a few years ago, it was hoped that if the United States agreed to MOX use, Russia would agree not to separate plutonium out of MOX spent fuel and not to use facilities built for the disposition of surplus weapons-usable plutonium for commercial purposes. These hopes have been dashed. Instead, the United States seems to be relinquishing its decades-old policy of not using plutonium in commercial reactors.

The 1996 Joint U.S./Russian Plutonium Disposition Study, which was put together by science advisers for President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin, allows for the separation of plutonium (known as reprocessing) from MOX spent fuel, the fabrication of MOX fuel for breeder reactors and the use of a MOX plant for commercial purposes after its disposition mission is complete.

At same time, Russia wants to go on separating plutonium from commercial spent fuel. There are already 30 tons of commercial plutonium sitting at Chelyabinsk-65. Reducing weapons-usable stocks from military stockpiles at great expense on the one hand while increasing commercial stocks (which can also be used in weapons) on the other is a bad strategy for preventing nuclear proliferation.

Proponents of current U.S.-Russian MOX plans argue that a several-decade moratorium on the reseparation of plutonium from spent MOX fuel is a sufficient safeguard against proliferation. But it won't matter whether MOX spent fuel is reprocessed now or in a few decades. So long as the infrastructure for MOX fuel production and reprocessing is created and maintained, there will be plenty of other spent fuel to reprocess and plenty of surplus plutonium to occupy MOX fuel fabrication plants in the meantime.

Furthermore, if Russia reprocesses MOX spent fuel, it will defeat the idea of locking up surplus plutonium in a highly radioactive matrix so it cannot be used in weapons. Whereas the Russian government may not want to use reactor-grade plutonium in weapons, some non-nuclear governments or terrorist groups may be willing to pay a high price for this weapons-usable material.

A program that was meant to address the security of plutonium has been sidetracked by a separate and very controversial debate about the worth of plutonium as an energy source.

It is with a view to separating these two issues that the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has proposed that plutonium be immobilized. Immobilization involves mixing the plutonium with glass or ceramics and storing it under bilateral or international safeguards. If, in the future, plutonium is independently deemed economical, it could be re-extracted. The differences between those who consider plutonium as an energy treasure and those who consider it waste could thus perhaps be bridged to reduce nuclear dangers now.

It has been clearly demonstrated that immobilization would be less expensive and more efficient, not to mention that it would produce less waste, than even one-time use of MOX fuel. (The reprocessing of spent MOX fuel would add both expense and waste.) The immobilization option has not received enough attention, because MOX proponents equate it with treatment of plutonium as a waste, while the MOX program has become a green light to building a plutonium economy.

U.S. financial help is crucial to any Russian program for putting military plutonium into nonweapons-usable form. We believe a sound policy of dealing with this surplus plutonium at an appropriate pace would require more financial assistance than the United States is now providing. Both countries would derive immense security benefits from properly directed U.S. aid. But money spent to create a plutonium infrastructure in Russia would be counterproductive for the same reasons that such expenditures should be avoided in the United States itself.

The debate should be shifted back to the issue at hand: the need to reduce the weapons-usable stocks of plutonium in both the United States and Russia. Disposing of the fuel through immobilization would be an important step toward this goal.

Arjun Makhijani is the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, near Washington, D.C. Anita Seth is a coordinator of the institute's global outreach program. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.