The Magazine

Breeding Nukes

Why is the U.S. government risking the spread of plutonium around the world?

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AFTER 9/11, keeping plutonium out of the hands of the world's Saddams and bin Ladens (who, with only 10 pounds of this reactor-generated stuff, could flatten lower Manhattan) would seem to be an urgent task. Tell that to the federal bureaucrats in charge of plutonium disposal. The programs they have proposed, if allowed to go forward, are not just leisurely, unnecessary, and expensive, they actually will increase the risks of nuclear theft. What's their plan? It's part of a deal--the least attractive part--that the Clinton administration struck with Russia back in 2000. At that time, Washington and Moscow agreed that within two decades each would dispose of some 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium--enough to make over 13,000 Nagasaki-sized bombs. One way to do this--suggested in the agreement--was to mix this material with other radioactive waste to make it too dangerous to fool with. Another, which the Russians insisted upon, was to fashion the plutonium into reactor fuel and use it in nuclear power stations, again, to make it too hot radioactively to handle. Both approaches are long-term solutions. In the near term, the surest way to keep this material from hostile hands is simply to strengthen security at the few sites where it is stored. This avoids the risk of illicit diversion that comes with additional transport or handling. Meanwhile, the classified hemispherical warhead shapes the plutonium is currently in could be made far less attractive for redeployment simply by smashing them flat at the storage sites. Later, after additional research is completed, one could mix this weapons material with other nuclear wastes and vitrify the stew into glass logs for final storage. This involves some risk because additional processing and transport is required. Once completed, however, this procedure would substantially reduce any chance of theft. In contrast, making the plutonium into reactor fuel is guaranteed to give nuclear thieves a field day.

It requires trucking tons of weapons-grade plutonium from existing storage sites to planned fuel fabrication facilities in the United States and Russia. The material must then pass through thousands of additional hands to be fashioned into fuel, shipped again, and stored and loaded at selected power sites. Throughout this process, which will take 20 to 30 years to complete, tons of weapons plutonium will be handled and in transit. At any point along the way, just 10 misplaced or stolen pounds of this material could be fashioned into a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Moreover, the nuclear kindling it will be turned into--known as mixed oxide fuel or MOX--is not all that much more difficult to make into bombs itself. Why would anyone choose to do this? Well, the Russians made us do it. Or at least, that's the argument. For years, Moscow has been trying to get the United States and its allies to subsidize the bloated nuclear industrial complex run by Minatom, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy. Their most recent proposal has been to take in spent nuclear fuel from Asia and Europe and reprocess or chemically strip out the plutonium, which could then be turned into MOX reactor fuel. Minatom already has a commercial reprocessing plant and plenty of nuclear workers. There's only one problem: The plan is insanely unprofitable. Not only is MOX far more expensive than common uranium to use as reactor fuel, the Russians need $1 billion they don't have just to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant. For obvious reasons, Minatom has yet to find private investors for this pitch. With the administration's proposed plutonium disposition program, though, Minatom won't need to. The required technology and the billions of dollars needed to pull this scheme off will come directly from U.S. taxpayers and the G-8 nations President Bush is hectoring for funds. Why is the White House taking these risks? Partly to please Russia: The administration is anxious to secure Vladimir Putin's help on missile defenses, the war on terrorism, and the fight against Iraq. MOX disposition is also favored by the Department of Energy and the national nuclear laboratories. Now out of the bomb-making business, these organizations have been itching to get back into nuclear power development. The kind of machines they and the Russians want to make are breeder reactors that burn plutonium and are extremely uneconomical (which is why U.S. utilities dropkicked breeders 20 or more years ago). More important, these breeder systems and the plutonium they burn and make would be just as vulnerable to nuclear theft and terrorism as MOX used in regular reactors. That's why 25 years ago, President Ford decided to defer commercial use of plutonium entirely. Every president since has seen the sense of backing this policy.