An expected U.S.-Russia summit agreement to use nearly 70 tons of U.S. and Russian warhead plutonium as fuel in nuclear-power plants would cost upwards of $6 billion, invite nuclear proliferation, and pose grave safety risks, according to the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a non-proliferation research and advocacy center. The agreement, likely to be signed by Presidents Clinton and Putin this weekend in Moscow, calls for each nation to use 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium as fuel in nuclear power plants over the next 25 years rather than dispose of it directly as waste.
This agreement is a commercial enterprise disguised as disarmament, said NCI President Paul Leventhal. The Russians and plutonium advocates worldwide view it as a shortcut to reviving plutonium fuel programs, and introducing this dangerous fuel into the U.S. nuclear power sector after it was abandoned two decades ago. This program could become a model for other nations that covet plutonium for civilian applications that can easily turn military.
"The nuclear-terrorism risks of distributing plutonium fuel to reactors in Russia at a time of political and economic instability should be obvious, added Leventhal. The cost will not be $6 billion, as currently estimated, but tens of billions of dollars tossed down a nuclear black hole because Russia's reactors will have to be refurbished and its nuclear industry fully subsidized to take on the task.
"With strong technical support, directly disposing of weapons plutonium by immobilizing it in highly radioactive waste would be much faster, cheaper and safer than using it as fuel in reactors, noted NCI Research Director Steven Dolley. The agreement gives lip service to the waste approach as a second option and provides for minimal amounts of impure plutonium to be disposed of as waste. But it is clear that the plutonium-fuel approach is the one favored by powerful industrial interests in both nations, as well as in Europe and Japan.
Reactor fuel made out of warhead plutonium has never been used on a commercial scale, and its behavior in reactors has not been tested. Use of plutonium fuel will greatly increase the risk to the public from a serious nuclear accident, noted Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI Scientific Director. Dr. Lyman recently completed an analysis that predicts the U.S.-Russian plan would increase the number of cancer fatalities resulting from a severe reactor accident by 25 percent. It is not clear who would be liable, or whether any compensation would be provided, if such an accident occurred. Liability for such accidents in Russia is still in dispute between U.S. and Russian negotiators.
Further information on the risks of plutonium fuel are available on NCIs website at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm. The following documents provide useful overviews: http://www.nci.org/e/el-russiamox.htm, http://www.nci.org/b/bas97.htm, http://www.nci.org/s/sp31298.htm, http://www.nci.org/e/el62899.htm, http://www.nci.org/l/l122096.htm, http://www.nci.org/n/nci-wpu-art-nyt1.htm