Anti-Nuclear Activists Slam U.S. Plutonium Disposal Pact with Russia
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, September 5, 2000 (ENS) - The United States and Russia have signed an agreement to turn tons of weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. Critics at the independent Nuclear Control Institute say the pact is "premature and dangerous," and could lead to increased risk of nuclear proliferation or terrorist capture of bomb materials.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov had already signed the agreement, which took effect Sunday with Goreís signature.
"This accomplishment advances the critical task of reducing stockpiles of excess weapons plutonium and contributes to key U.S. arms control and non-proliferation objectives," says a White House statement.
But the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington, DC based independent research and advocacy center specializing in issues of nuclear proliferation, says the agreement only delays the day of reckoning for the excess plutonium.
"This agreement kicks the tough decisions about plutonium disposition down the road," said Paul Leventhal, president of NCI. "If the safeguards and liability questions could have been resolved easily, they would have been. The complicating factor in all this is both nationsí insistence on using warhead plutonium as fuel in nuclear power plants."
The agreement requires that each country dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium - enough for thousands of nuclear weapons.
Most of the plutonium will be turned into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and irradiated in nuclear reactors. The balance will be combined with high level radioactive wastes, and disposed of in permanent underground repositories.
The U.S. intends to use 25.5 tons as fuel and immobilize 8.5 tons for disposal. The Russian Federation intends to use all 34 tons as fuel.
"With strong technical support, the alternative of directly disposing of weapons plutonium by immobilizing it in highly radioactive waste would be faster, cheaper and safer than using it as fuel in reactors," noted NCI research director Steven Dolley. "It would be much easier to resolve safeguards and liability issues if the primary disposition method were to immobilize plutonium in waste rather than turn it into fuel."
The new agreement does not resolve, but merely calls for further negotiations on questions related to liability in case of a MOX fuel accident, safeguarding and monitoring of disposition, and financial assistance arrangements, NCI charges.
The U.S. has pledged $200 million to help Russia implement the agreement, but millions more in funding has not been secured.
"Without settling these issues, the agreement is clearly premature," said Tom Clements, NCI executive director. "Plutonium disposition will not proceed in either nation, and stubborn insistence on the complex and risky plutonium fuel approach will be to blame."
Both countries will need to build new industrial scale facilities to convert the plutonium into fuel or immobilize it with other wastes.
By 2007, these facilities must be converting or disposing of two metric tons per year, the agreement says. Both countries must seek to at least double that rate, although there is no timeline set for this part of the pact.
Under the agreement, the process of converting or immobilizing the plutonium as well as the end products created will be subject to international monitoring.
Any additional plutonium that either country designates as "excess" to national defense needs will fall under the same program, so the final total could be more than 68 tons of plutonium.
"Plutonium advocates worldwide view this program as a shortcut to reviving a plutonium industry now in decline, and introducing this dangerous fuel into U.S. nuclear power reactors after it was abandoned two decades ago," said NCIís Leventhal. "This program could become a model for other nations that covet plutonium for civilian applications that easily can be diverted for military use."