ASHINGTON, Jan. 22
The Bush administration intends to announce a new plan on
Wednesday to dispose of surplus American nuclear weapons fuel,
rejecting in part a 1996 plan by the Clinton administration as too
Under the new plan, 34 tons of plutonium will be converted into
fuel for nuclear reactors. Under the Clinton plan, 8 tons of it was
to be ruined by mixing it with the waste created when the plutonium
was produced. The Clinton administration decided to pursue both
routes because it was not certain that either one was technically
feasible and it was eager to ensure that it had at least one method.
But a senior administration official said this evening that dropping
the second method would save almost $2 billion.
The decision was a blow to opponents of nuclear proliferation,
who say that using recycled plutonium in power reactors will send
the wrong message to countries the United States is trying to
dissuade from purifying plutonium.
Most plutonium is produced in power reactors, and if it is
purified from spent fuel, it can be used in reactors again, but it
can also end up as weapons fuel.
Others say the plan will at least preserve the heart of an
agreement with the Russians to destroy a like amount of their bomb
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is expected to argue that the
new strategy is central to enhancing national security and advancing
nonproliferation goals, the senior official said, and that it is
technologically possible and affordable.
At the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonprofit group based here
that seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons materials, Tom
Clements, an expert on plutonium, said that turning the material
into reactor fuel would put plutonium into the commercial world, a
security risk. And it will make it harder to discourage other
countries from recovering plutonium and reusing it, Mr. Clements
said. His organization and others have said that the conversion
raises technical and environmental challenges and that the Energy
Department has a poor record of solving such problems.
But it may solve a political problem. In South Carolina, Governor
Jim Hodges, a Democrat, said the plan "sounds promising." Last
summer, believing that the department was planning to ship plutonium
to Savannah River, near Aiken, S.C., without a plan to dispose of
it, Mr. Hodges threatened to use state troopers to turn the Energy
Department's trucks around at the state's borders.
Nearly all the money for the project will be spent in South
Carolina, which will make the decision popular locally.
The department plans to pay the Duke Power Company to use two of
its twin-reactor plants, Catawba, in Clover, S.C., and McGuire, in
Cornelius, N.C., to take the plutonium as fuel. But to do so, Duke
must win license amendments from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
and it already faces opposition.
Mr. Clements's organization argues that an accident in a plant
using plutonium fuel could release more dangerous materials than one
at a plant using uranium fuel.
The senior Bush administration official said that "while people
may be enthralled with immobilization, if you want to do something
that keeps the Russians to their commitment, this is the way to do
Cost estimates have varied wildly. The 1996 estimate was $2.3
billion, but by last summer the estimate was $6.6 billion. The
administration will say on Wednesday that eliminating immobilization
will save nearly $2 billion and cut the total cost to $3.8 billion,
the senior official said.
The Clinton plan was to dispose of 52.5 tons, more than half the
national stockpile, but that was reduced to 34 tons. Some of the
plutonium that was to have been mixed with wastes is unsuitable for
conversion to fuel; the administration will have to find two tons of
weapons plutonium to satisfy the agreement with the Russians.
The new plan is to build two factories at the Savannah River
site. One will take plutonium "pits," the heart of nuclear warheads,
remove gallium, an element with which it is alloyed, and convert it
from a metal to an oxide form. A second will mix the plutonium oxide
with oxides of uranium and turn that into ceramic form, the common
form for commercial reactor fuel. The product, mixed oxide fuel,
known as MOx, is used in Europe and Japan, but plants have had
technical problems, and MOx is far more expensive than