Little Progress Disposing of 34 Metric Tons of Surplus Weapons Grade Plutonium
Too slow, too expensive, too risky: the multi-billion dollar Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) program, under construction at the Savannah River Site, continues to be controversial. A technology chosen by the United States in the mid-1990s to contribute to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, today it is being held out as a solution for America's energy future.
In 1996, the U.S.-Russian Independent Scientific Commission on Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium was put in place to propose options to decrease risks of nuclear proliferation. In the framework of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) signed by the United States and Russia, the two countries had indeed committed to dispose of 34 metric tons of their surplus weapons plutonium to reduce the threat that this material could be stolen or diverted.
Professor Nikolai N. Ponomarev-Stepnoi was a member of this commission. During a conference organized by the National Academies and the U.S. Institute of Peace on January 19 in Washington, he explained that the final report presented by the commission in 1997 contained a two-approach proposal: "Using the plutonium in MOX fuel for burning once-through in currently operating nuclear power reactors, and vitrifying the plutonium together with fission products in glass logs for burial." These two approaches were supposed to be used in both countries. At the end of the 1990s, the United States eventually chose to give up the vitrification process and to concentrate on MOX. Russia decided, for its part, to stock the plutonium for disposition over future decades. The only condition of the deal was that the disposition in the two countries would proceed in parallel.
Russia is now planning to "recycle" the plutonium by using it in fast-neutron breeder reactors in order to "close the fuel cycle." Russia "... estimate[s] that the plutonium has an enormous strategic importance," Ponomarev-Stepnoi said. "...We consider it as the future of our atomic energy starting in 2014." To Russia, this approach would allow the country to use all of its plutonium covered by the agreement, whereas the United States will use some of its plutonium as MOX fuel and immobilize the rest - which is not without risk because immobilized material could more readily be recovered for use in weapons.