Paul Leventhal

President, Nuclear Control Institute


presented to


The 2000 Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference


Washington, D.C.

March 16, 2000



1. Spent fuel is the heart of the nuclear dilemma, the Achilles heel of nuclear power industry.


     -- Basic dilemma:

          - Nuclear power reactors routinely produce plutonium in spent fuel;


          - Nuclear industry has no idea---surely no publicly acceptable plan---for what to do with spent fuel, or with the plutonium already separated from it;


          - This dilemma raises larger question of whether nuclear power is deserving of continued support from the public and especially from non-proliferation & disarmament community if it fails to clean up its act.


     -- East Asia:


          - Environmental, safety and commercial concerns about spent fuel, exacerbated by potential military use of contained plutonium;


          - Both South Korea & Taiwan sought to weaponize in the 1970s;


          - North Korea pursued weapons program in 1990s;


          - Japan's plutonium program is a real worry to its neighbors, including China.



2. U.S. has turned a blind eye to civilian plutonium in Europe & Japan despite a basic policy commitment to "not encourage" plutonium use generally.


     -- Specific exception made for Europe & Japan:


          - Current (1993) U.S. policy statement: "The United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes. The United States, however, will maintain its existing commitments regarding the use of plutonium in civil nuclear programs in Western Europe and Japan."


          - Undercuts public understanding of & interest in the plutonium problem;


          - This dilemma is illustrated in a chart, "The Plutonium File," published recently in Washington Post. What's wrong with this picture?:



          - Answer: World civilian plutonium is not even on the chart. Here's a corrected version:



     -- False notions underpinning U.S. lack of initiative on plutonium:


          - "counterproductive" to raise with allies and conflicts with U.S. "existing commitments" on plutonium use in nuclear cooperation agreements;


          - European & Japanese plutonium "irrelevant" to proliferation;


          - "Transparency" (the IAEA's Voluntary International Plutonium Management Program, INFCIRC 549) and "partial" Fissban are sufficient to deal with plutonium.


     -- Counter-arguments:


          - Re. "counterproductive":

              > Failure to engage allies undercuts U.S. anti- plutonium efforts elsewhere (East Asia, South Asia, Mideast);


              > Quiet, constructive engagement with allies (especially UK, Japan & Germany) on alternatives is possible now and does not conflict with consents already given for plutonium use;


          - Re: "irrelevance":


              > Ask the Koreans whether Japanese plutonium is irrelevant;


              > Legitimating plutonium in Japan will encourage other NPT parties like Iran to demand full fuel- cycle privileges;


              > Denying others while accommodating Japan injects discrimination into an already difficult non- proliferation regime.



          - Reliance on "transparency" could be counterproductive if it further legitimates reprocessing & plutonium use and makes achievement of a "comprehensive" Fissban impossible;


          - Proceeding with spent-fuel disposal before first stopping reprocessing puts the proverbial cart before the horse:


              > gives the nuclear industry & bureaucracy license to continuing producing plutonium;


              > unless threatened with shutdown of nuclear power, they won't act responsibly on spent fuel & plutonium;


              > for better or worse, only the prospect of industry choking on its own spent fuel holds any promise for forcing positive change.


              > The change needed is to halt reprocessing, directly dispose of spent fuel, and to immobilize already-separated plutonium in reprocessing waste (for direct disposal with spent fuel), rather than make it into MOX.


     -- If a threat to shut down the nuclear-power industry to achieve positive change seems a bit extreme, consider the dimensions of the danger:


          - Now more civilian than military plutonium in the world.


          - Greatest growth in these stocks has taken place since enactment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act and establishment of U.S. anti-plutonium policy in mid- 1970s.


          - The following charts show the annual and cumulative growth in world civilian stocks of separated plutonium during successive U.S. Presidencies. Note, in particular, the "Clinton Legacy":


              > "World Separation of Civilian Plutonium---Annual" <carnegie-chart1.gif>


              > "World Separation of Civilian Plutonium--- Cumulative" <carnegie-chart2.gif>


              > "Annual World Separation of Civilian Plutonium--- by Administration" <carnegie-chart8.htm>


          - Even more ominous is the rapidly mounting inventory of spent fuel, growing from 6,000 tonnes in 1970 to 323,000 tonnes by 2010, and in particular the rapid growth of plutonium in spent fuel, from 13 tonnes in 1970 to 2,125 tonnes by 2010:


              > "World Generation of Spent Fuel--- Cumulative" <carnegie-chart3.gif>


              > "World Generation of Plutonium in Spent Fuel--- Cumulative" <carnegie-chart4.gif>



3. The East Asian spent-fuel "dilemma" really presents an opportunity:


     -- The principal players all want to get rid of their spent fuel.      


     -- The vast quantities of spent fuel and of generated plutonium in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are indeed ominous:


          > "Spent Fuel and Plutonium in East Asia" <carnegie-chart5.gif>


     -- Japan's plutonium program has been a fiasco: the MOX program is on hold; the breeder program is unofficially dead; the reprocessing program is stalled, if not stopped.


     -- Korea and Taiwan are running out of spent-fuel storage space; Britain and France have been offering them reprocessing services; the United States, which controls most of their spent fuel, has rejected reprocessing of their fuel.


     -- There are three active international initiatives for disposing of East Asian spent fuel:


          - Pangea;


          - Non-Proliferation Trust;  


          - Russia's recent reprocessing offer.


     -- The problem is that commercial interests rather than non- proliferation objectives are driving these proposals.


          - If removing the spent-fuel albatross from the nuclear power industry is the only outcome, these plans should be strongly resisted.


          - If halting separation & use of plutonium is made a condition of disposing of spent fuel, and full consideration is given to the safety and security concerns of en-route & repository states, these plans should be cautiously considered.



4. Conditions for disposing of East Asian spent fuel:


     -- No reprocessing of S. Korean & Taiwanese spent fuel; no further reprocessing of Japanese spent fuel.


     -- No MOX use; already-separated plutonium should be immobilized in waste and disposed of with spent fuel.


     -- One-way ticket to repository; no spent fuel can be returned or re-transferred for reprocessing.


     -- "Gold-plated" transport: dedicated ships with military escort vessel and with guard force on board; hardened casks to further protect against accidents & terrorism.


     -- Full consideration of legal rights & needs of en-route states: prior notification & consultation; full EIS; binding guarantees on indemnification & salvage.


     -- Full weighing of non-proliferation, security and safety benefits of disposal abroad vs. disposal at home.



5. For any East Asian spent-fuel disposal scheme to succeed, there must be


     -- U.S. leadership, based on US consent rights over virtually all of the spent fuel, as well as on U.S. constructive engagement with Japan & UK in particular on alternatives to reprocessing & MOX;


     -- Cooperation by the Japanese, Chinese & Russians to forego further civilian reprocessing & plutonium use.


     -- There has been successful international cooperation to collect and dispose of research reactor spent fuel containing weapons-grade uranium; the same cooperation is possible for power-reactor spent fuel containing weapons- usable plutonium. But as with research reactor spent fuel, non-proliferation, not commercial, considerations must prevail.


     -- This is NOT "the best being the enemy of the good." The "good" has not been good enough. In fact, it has been downright dangerous, as seen in rapid growth of civilian plutonium stocks.


-- The key: U.S. policy has to come around. Plutonium must no longer be regarded as a political problem to be avoided, but a non-proliferation problem to be confronted.



      Back to What's New page