QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON WARHEAD PLUTONIUM DISPOSITION
March 28, 1997
1. Won't a "dual track approach" serve as an insurance policy, to ensure MOX is available if immobilization runs into problems?
It makes no sense to spend hundreds of millions, probably billions, of dollars on a dangerous, redundant MOX option for "insurance." DOE's own data reveal that even under the most optimistic scenario for MOX disposal, immobilization could begin sooner, complete the job more rapidly, and require fewer facilities to manage and safeguard. In fact, DOE plans to immobilize at least 8 tons, and as much as 30 tons, of plutonium which is not suitable for MOX. It makes more sense to proceed with immobilization of all surplus warhead plutonium, unless and until it is shown that immobilization cannot handle the job.
2. Haven't Europe and Japan used MOX fuel in light-water reactors (LWRs) for over 20 years without major problems?
Foreign experience with commercial MOX fuel is not as extensive, or as relevant to production and use of warhead- plutonium MOX fuel, as MOX proponents claim. Most foreign light- water light-water reactors (LWRs) do not use MOX. The few that do have MOX fuel loaded in one-third or less of their cores. No LWR has ever been loaded with a full core of MOX, as has been proposed for reactors that will burn warhead-plutonium MOX. Also, there is very little experience with MOX fuel irradiated to the high burn-ups typical of U.S. nuclear-power reactors. A recent French test of MOX fuel at higher burn-ups caused the fuel element to rupture violently. None of this experience involves MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium. Such MOX alters the reaction in the reactor's core in ways yet to be examined. It also also contains traces of elements such as gallium, which could adversely affect the durability of fuel rods. It is not accurate to describe warhead-plutonium MOX as a known and proven technology.
3. Won't immobilization require many years of research and development, while the MOX approach can get started in a few years, as MOX advocates claim?
Exactly the opposite is true. Vitrification is already used on an industrial scale to immobilize high-level waste from reprocessing into glass logs. According to the Energy Department, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Joint U.S.- Russian study on plutonium disposition, immobilizing warhead plutonium in vitrified waste forms should present no safety or operational problems. The required research can be completed quickly---in fact, the Energy Department's own assessments show that the immobilization option can be started 7 years sooner, and completed 13 years sooner, than the MOX option. That's because there's no industrial experience in making MOX out of warhead plutonium, and no experience in burning it in commercial reactors.
4. How expensive will the MOX option be, compared with vitrification?
DOE estimates both approaches would cost about the same. This conclusion is wrong. It is based on a number of fantasies, including:
- the assumption that commercial electric utilities, whose goal is to make profits, will perform this service for free;
- the assumption that utilities will pay DOE just as much for MOX fuel as they would for conventional uranium fuel, when, in fact, they want MOX fuel for free or at a substantial discount;
- the assumption that nuclear utilities, which are unable to compete in a deregulated electricity market with non-nuclear generators of electricity, will continue to operate their reactors to burn MOX fuel without billions in federal subsidies.
Assuming utilities insist on fees to irradiate MOX fuel, and insist on receiving that fuel at a substantial discount over the price they would have paid for uranium fuel, DOE's own studies suggest that the MOX approach could cost as much as $2.6 billion- --two and a half times more than the immobilization approach. Subsidies to keep uneconomic reactors operating over the next 20 years could increase this cost by billions of dollars.
5. Why waste the energy value contained in warhead plutonium by just throwing it away?
If plutonium were truly an economic fuel, nuclear-electric utilities worldwide would be lining up to load their reactors with it---yet, almost none of them choose to do so. the few foreign utilities that burn MOX do so reluctantly at the insistence of government-run plutonium companies. That's because extracting energy from plutonium throws good money after bad. Even assuming that warhead plutonium is "free," MOX fuel made from warhead plutonium costs at least two or three times more than standard low enriched uranium fuel. And the safety and proliferation risks of MOX fuel are far greater than immobilization, and must be taken into account.
6. Doesn't irradiating MOX fuel in reactors render its plutonium content unusable in nuclear weapons?
It is a dangerous myth that "reactor-grade" plutonium (the plutonium discharged from a nuclear-power reactor) cannot be used to make workable weapons. The ability to construct a weapon from reactor-grade plutonium was disclosed and demonstrated by the United States decades ago. It is dangerous even to consider it an open question. In 1990, Hans Blix, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), informed our Institute that there is "no debate" on this point in the Safeguards Department of the IAEA, and that the agency considers virtually all isotopes of plutonium, including high burn-up reactor-grade plutonium, to be usable in nuclear weapons. The U.S. government had declassified this information for the IAEA and foreign governments two decades earlier. In June 1994, U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary declassified information about a 1962 test of a nuclear device using reactor-grade plutonium, which successfully produced a nuclear yield. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences plutonium disposition study concluded that "[t]he plutonium in the spent fuel assembly would be of lower isotopic quality for weapons purposes than the still weapons-grade plutonium in the glass log, but since nuclear weapons could be made even with the spent fuel plutonium this difference is not decisive." [emphasis supplied]
7. Isn't it better to burn up the weapons plutonium, rather than bury it and create "plutonium mines" for future generations?
It is misleading to speak of "burning" weapons plutonium as if all or even most of the plutonium in MOX is consumed during irradiation. In fact, irradiated weapons-plutonium MOX fuel would contain only about 30 percent less total plutonium than was contained in the fuel when it was loaded into the reactor. However, even these reductions won't be achieved in practice, because they would require reactors to be loaded entirely with MOX fuel. No light-water reactor anywhere in the world has been operated with a 100 percent MOX core. More realistically, a light-water reactor (LWR) loaded with a conventional one-third core of MOX fuel would discharge only about one percent less plutonium than was contained in the MOX fuel originally loaded.
8. Won't the warhead MOX programs in the United States and Russia be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, averting the risk of theft or diversion?
IAEA safeguards have proven incapable of guaranteeing the security of every last pound of plutonium in a MOX fuel industry that uses plutonium by the ton. Less than 15 pounds of plutonium is enough for an atomic bomb. Large amounts of plutonium get "stuck in the works" of MOX fuel fabrication plants, thwarting accounting technology. Over 140 pounds of plutonium was presumed to be "held up" in Japan's small pilot MOX plant a few years ago when the plant was short that amount of plutonium after operating five years. But since measurements of plutonium held up in process can be off by 25 to 30 percent, the IAEA required Japan to clean out the plant to prove the plutonium was there. Two years and $100 million later, more than a bomb's worth of plutonium is still missing. A comparable hold-up of plutonium in the much larger MOX plant needed for warhead plutonium would result in inventory imbalances of over 200 pounds of plutonium a year. A further problem is that low-level waste is not routinely policed, providing a pathway for diverting plutonium from a plant. Transportation and onsite storage of fresh MOX at reactors also provide points of vulnerability. A major problem is that Russia has not agreed to accept any IAEA safeguards for MOX fuel plants.
9. Since Russia rejects vitrification of plutonium, isn't a MOX approach the only way to get Russia to cooperate and dispose of its own warhead plutonium?
This argument simply doesn't make sense. The U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament process is fundamentally bilateral in character, and the United States will always have substantial influence in the areas of safeguards, security, and verification, whatever the means of disposal. Also, the joint U.S.-Russian government plutonium disposition study recognized that "[t]he United States and Russia need not use the same plutonium disposition technology. Indeed . . . it is likely that the best approaches will be different in the two countries." Moreover, the United States possesses the ultimate tool for exerting leverage over the Russian program---money. There is little question that the United States will end up bearing most of the financial burden of Russian plutonium disposition. If the United States simply acquiesces in Russia's desire to pursue MOX, it could lose the leverage it already has. Since the MOX technology that Russia and the United States would acquire is of European origin, U.S. participation in fundamental technology and design issues would automatically be marginalized. The better approach for the United States is to promptly demonstrate an immobilization technology that it can offer Russia, and to make it financially attractive to Russia to cooperate in a joint vitrification program.
10. Aren't proliferation arguments against the MOX approach flawed because other nations will engage in reprocessing and use plutonium fuels, regardless of whether the United States pursues a MOX approach to disposition?
To the contrary, the civilian plutonium industry is in serious trouble worldwide due to a poor safety record, bad economics, and proliferation risks. Pro-plutonium interests in Europe, Japan and Russia fervently hope that the United States will adopt a MOX approach to disposition because it will breathe new life into their programs. As the National Academy of Sciences study cautioned:
[P]olicymaker s will have to take into account the fact that choosing to use weapons plutonium in reactors would be perceived by some as representing generalized U.S. approval of separated plutonium fuel cycles, thereby compromising the ability of the U.S. government to oppose such fuel cycles elsewhere. Conversely, choosing to dispose of weapons plutonium without extracting any energy from it could be interpreted as reflecting a generalized U.S. government opposition to plutonium recycle. Either choice could have an impact on fuel cycle debates now underway in Japan, Europe, and Russia.
Furthermore, John Holum, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the U.S. government's top arms control adviser, had such concerns in mind when he wrote to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary in November 1996 that
If the hybrid option is chosen, these countries [Russia, South Korea, and others] would hear only one message for the next 25 years: that plutonium use for generating commercial power is now being blessed by the United States. No matter how much effort we take in reducing these risks ... the overriding message that we will convey is that civil plutonium use is acceptable.
Holum advised that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) "reject the hybrid option and select immobilization," and warning that the MOX option "would set a very damaging precedent for U.S. nonproliferation policy."
11. Doesn't the Department of Energy's assurance that the U.S. MOX program will be terminated after all the surplus warhead plutonium is disposed of, guarantee that no "plutonium economy" will arise in the United States?
The overseas plutonium industry would love to see the U.S. nuclear power market opened to MOX and, someday, spent-fuel reprocessing. Some elements of the U.S. nuclear industry would also like to see the United States move to a plutonium fuel cycle. Westinghouse proposed in 1995 that large amounts of U.S. civilian spent fuel be reprocessed at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The nuclear waste bill that passed the U.S. Senate last year originally contained pro-reprocessing language that was removed only under pressure. But plutonium advocates haven't given up: late last year, the senior Senate staffer in charge of the waste bill stated, "If this program is successful, the use of MOX to reduce military plutonium stockpiles could go a long way to improve the political acceptance of the use of similar technology to reduce civilian plutonium stockpiles as an alternative to burial." U.S. nuclear- industry supporters of MOX want the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve generically the use of MOX fuel in the United States. If such generic approval is given, licensing of MOX fuel use could not be limited to warhead plutonium disposition: any plant could go ahead and do it, even using MOX fuel made with civilian plutonium.
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