What happens to all that uranium?
By Tim Buchholz
The Department of Energy’s (DOE) decision to mix 33 or more metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons with depleted uranium into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors is a direct reversal of decades-old U.S. policy aimed toward non-proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. A plutonium fuel program will increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and the international proliferation of plutonium.
A decision on the part of the U.S. government to engage in a large scale civilian plutonium program would encourage the continuation of the messy and dangerous reprocessing programs in Europe and Japan. A plutonium fuel program would destroy any leverage the U.S. might have to influence non-weapons states from creating their own civilian reprocessing programs.
The U.S. plutonium fuel program would create facilities and financial interests based exclusively upon the use and spread of plutonium. The corporation most involved in a potential U.S. plutonium fuel program is the French reprocessing company Cogema. This company has teamed up with Duke Power and Virigina Power to create a new consortium, and would be responsible for the storage, safeguarding, and some processing of weapons-grade plutonium.
This industry structure builds an economy upon the false and dangerous notion that plutonium is an asset. The involvement of these corporations places the responsibility of these deadly materials in the hands of corporate entities whose single goal is the generation of profits.
Reprocessing is the chemical process of separating plutonium and uranium from other fission products in the irradiated fuel from a nuclear reactor. The separated materials can then be made into a mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) which is reused in a reactor. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has had a policy of not allowing reprocessing, and instead treating the nuclear fission products as the high-level atomic waste it is. This policy is based primarily on non-proliferation grounds, and is met to discourage countries from engaging in the separation of plutonium and uranium—since these substances—once separated—can also be used to build nuclear weapons.
Even now, the Department of Energy says that its proposed MOX program will only be a “once-through” program, meaning that once the plutonium from nuclear weapons has been processed into MOX and used in civilian reactors, no further reprocessing would be allowed. But the industries involved in the plutonium fuel program will have a vested interest in the possibility of a U.S. commercial reprocessing industry as part of waste management policy. And the necessary infrastructure—including construction of all the need facilities—would be in place.
THEFT AND DIVERSION
In recent years the US has seen a surge in devastating terrorist activities on its own soil. The knowledge necessary to create a nuclear weapon is available to the public. The best policy toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism is to ensure that the materials necessary to make a nuclear bomb cannot be obtained. The US plutonium fuel program would increase the risks of theft of weapons grade plutonium. The process of fabricating plutonium fuel involves the handling of bulk amounts of plutonium. This process makes accurate accounting of plutonium extremely difficult, which leaves measuring disparities that could be an open invitation for diversion of the plutonium for weapons purposes. In some cases it may be impossible to know whether plutonium has been stolen or is simply left in residues at processing facilities without an expensive clean-out. Once the plutonium fuel has been made, it would then have to be transported to commercial reactors where safeguarding of that plutonium will be the responsibility of the utility. This also makes the plutonium vulnerable to theft or diversion.
Irradiating weapons plutonium in a reactor does not make the plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. The U.S. government proved with a nuclear test in 1962 that so-called “reactor grade” plutonium can be used in nuclear bombs. Using weapons plutonium in reactors does not effectively safeguard plutonium, and it undermines disarmament efforts.
A U.S. plutonium fuel program would send a clear signal to other countries: the U.S. government approves of separated plutonium fuel programs. This would undercut the government’s ability to discourage reprocessing in other countries and may encourage other countries to pursue plutonium programs. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum explained the situation clearly in a memorandum to former Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary:
“U.S. decisions on plutonium disposition are inextricably linked with U.S. efforts to reduce stockpiles as well as limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The multi-decade institutionalization of plutonium use in US commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for US non-proliferation policy.”
The alternative, to encase the plutonium in ceramics or glass (immobilization), will not affect the government’s non-proliferation goals, nor encourage civilian reprocessing in the U.S. or elsewhere. Immobilizing plutonium will send the proper signal that plutonium is a dangerous waste and needs to be treated as such.
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