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Testimony of Paul Leventhal
President, Nuclear Control Institute
Hearing of the Hessiche Lantag
(Parliament of the German State of Hesse)
Nuclear Waste and the Products of Reprocessing

Wiesbaden, Germany
June 20, 1996

My name is Paul Leventhal. I am president and founder of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a non-profit, policy research group based in Washington, D.C. that seeks to increase understanding of proliferation and terrorism risks associated with civilian uses of nuclear- weapon materials---plutonium and highly enriched uranium. I appreciate your invitation to present testimony here today. Steven Dolley, research director of NCI, assisted in the preparation of this testimony.

The controversy and violence that attended the recent shipment of vitrified high-level reprocessing waste (VHLW) from France to Gorleben and the earlier shipment of spent fuel from Phillipsburg to Gorleben starkly demonstrate the deep disagreement within Germany about the future of nuclear power, as well as about disposal of the waste it generates. Disagreement over nuclear power and nuclear waste extends beyond Germany to every nation using nuclear power---all the more so in those planning to recover and use plutonium as a fuel.

My testimony will address these matters from the perspective of nuclear non-proliferation- --that is, in terms of limiting the risks of the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations or to terrorist organizations by limiting the amounts of atom-bomb materials in civilian commerce. A closely related matter is the objective of disposing of warhead materials from the nuclear-weapon states in a way that avoids using them in civilian nuclear programs.

A World Awakening from the "Plutonium Dream"

The "plutonium dream" of the 1960s stands in sharp contrast with the "plutonium reality" that we face in the 1990s. Thirty years ago, energy planners around the world anticipated that nuclear power would soon become the world's primary method of electricity generation, and that this rapid growth in nuclear power would quickly outstrip the world's ability to produce large amounts of affordable uranium. As a result, it was expected that nuclear programs would move to a "closed fuel cycle," in which spent uranium fuel would be reprocessed to separate out plutonium, and the recovered plutonium would fuel fast-breeder reactors (FBRs). These breeders would produce more plutonium than they consumed, and create unlimited amounts of inexpensive electricity.

As I will discuss, the plutonium dream has experienced major setbacks, but not before causing far more plutonium to be produced in civilian than in military nuclear programs. Ever since the first plutonium was produced in gram quantities during World War II, more than 1,200 metric tons of it have been produced in reactors. [See Figure 1, "Total Worldwide Plutonium Production"] Of this amount, about 260 tons have been produced for weapons; all the rest, nearly three times as much, has been produced in civilian nuclear power reactors. [See Figure 2, "Total Military and Civilian Plutonium"]

With the end of the superpowers' nuclear arms race, the amount of military plutonium is expected to stay essentially constant and then decline as plutonium from retired warheads is disposed of. But the amounts of civilian plutonium produced in power reactors will grow very rapidly from about 650 tons in 1990 to 2,100 tons in the year 2010 ---more than eight times the amount of weapons plutonium.

A major difference between military and civilian plutonium is that most military plutonium has been chemically separated ("reprocessed") from the spent fuel of reactors for direct use in weapons, while most civilian plutonium remains embedded in spent fuel. As long as plutonium remains in highly radioactive spent fuel, it is not immediately accessible for weapons.

However, commercial reprocessing of spent fuel from civilian power reactors is now getting underway on a large scale. The impact of this reprocessing is startling: while in 1990 there was more than twice as much separated, weapons-usable plutonium in military than in civilian programs, by the year 2000 more plutonium suitable for direct use in weapons will exist in civilian than in military programs for the first time. By the year 2010, there will be nearly 550 tons of civilian, weapon-usable plutonium---more than twice the amount in military programs. [See Figure 3, "Separated Military and Civilian Plutonium"]

The plutonium dream began to fall apart in the 1970s, as the assumptions undergirding it began to fall away. High capital costs and safety concerns caused many nations to scale back dramatically their nuclear-power development plans. At the same time, uranium turned out to be far more abundant than anticipated, and the price of this commodity began steadily to decline as the market became oversupplied. In the meantime, the costs of reprocessing spent fuel and fabricating plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel soared, making MOX fuel four to eight times more expensive than standard low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel in light-water reactors.1 Also, the breeder reactor proved to be far costlier and more difficult to develop and more dangerous to operate than originally assumed.

This reversal of fortune for plutonium has been reflected in the nuclear-power programs of all major industrial states.

Great Britain. Great Britain, which relies on the provision of reprocessing services to other nations as a major source of foreign exchange, is less than enthusiastic about using plutonium in its domestic power program. In fact, Great Britain has no plans to use plutonium in its power reactors, and will have a civilian plutonium surplus totaling some 50 metric tons by the turn of the century,2 with no plans for its disposition. Great Britain also withdrew support for development of a European FBR, and has shut down its own experimental breeder reactor and the associated reprocessing plant in Dounreay, Scotland.

France. Despite a long-standing commitment to close its fuel cycle, France cancelled its own breeder-reactor development program and has been extremely slow to use plutonium in light- water reactors. Nor is it in any hurry to reprocess domestic spent fuel from its electric utility Electricite de France (EDF). Most reprocessing has been of foreign spent fuel, thus making France's reprocessing industry, like Britain's, a major foreign-exchange earner. In fact, EDF recently changed its bookkeeping practices to assign an economic value of zero to its plutonium stocks.3 And plans to breed plutonium at the troubled Superphenix fast reactor have been abandoned for safety reasons in favor of small- scale plutonium- and actinide-burning research projects, after a series of technical problems, shutdowns and sodium coolant leaks.4

Japan. Japan has maintained the most ambitious plan to utilize plutonium as a nuclear fuel. However, Japan's plutonium program has experienced major setbacks over the last few months. The serious accident at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in December triggered attempts by high officials of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) to mislead the public about the true extent of the accident, and the reactor is now shut down for at least three years, perhaps indefinitely.5 In the wake of the accident, the governors of the three prefectures that host most of Japan's nuclear- power plants served notice to the national government that they are not prepared to consider licensing of light-water reactors to use plutonium fuels, and they demanded a "thorough review" of the plutonium policy.6 Recently, it was reported that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is undertaking its own review in conjunction with a moratorium on the entire commercial plutonium recycling and FBR program.7

Russia. Russia has major plans to implement a plutonium fuel economy that would include provision of reprocessing services for overseas clients, plutonium recycle in Russian light- water reactors, and rapid development of FBRs. However, the virtual collapse of Russia's economy has prevented implementation of these projects. The large RT-2 reprocessing plant project, now about 30 percent complete, is likely to collapse without an infusion of foreign capital.8 The current reprocessing plant, RT-1, may need to cease operation unless the price charged for services can be substantially increased.9 Russia also wants to use plutonium recovered from dismantled warheads as MOX fuel for power reactors.10 It is likely---and to be hoped---that this objective will also fall victim to budgetary constraints, because a civilian fuel cycle based on weapon-grade plutonium would pose substantial proliferation risks.

United States. The United States, the nation that originated the plutonium dream through President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" proposal of 1953, put the brakes on plans for a domestic closed fuel cycle in the 1970s, as a result of directives from Presidents Ford and Carter. The rejection of plutonium recycle for the U.S. nuclear-power industry was formalized by the cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor and Barnwell reprocessing plant projects by Congress in the early 1980s, during the Reagan Administration. A primary motivating force for these actions was concern about the nuclear-proliferation and nuclear-terrorism risks of plutonium fuel cycles. This concern is stated by the Clinton Administration in its 1993 non- proliferation policy: "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."11 Because of these proliferation concerns, the Clinton Administration halted work on the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor, a modified breeder-reactor technology, in 1994.

Germany. As you know, Germany has been in the forefront of rethinking of the closed fuel cycle. A few years ago the Kalkar FBR and Wackersdorf reprocessing plant projects were cancelled, in part due to strong public opposition, and last year Siemens abandoned plans to operate its nearly-completed MOX plutonium fuel fabrication plant at Hanau. German electric utilities have cancelled some of their post-2000 reprocessing contracts with British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL),12 and are reportedly considering further cancellations.

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End Notes

1. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium," Science & Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, Table 8, p. 18. Back to document

2. David Albright, Frans Berkhout, & William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1992, 1993, pp. 93-94. Back to document

3. Ann MacLachlan, "EDF to Erase Positive Pu Value in 1995 Accounts," Nucleonics Week, November 2, 1995, p. 14. Back to document

4. Ann MacLachlan, "New French Government OKs Restart of Superphenix After IHX Repair," Nucleonics Week, August 24, 1995, p. 3.Back to document

5. "Donen Verifies Videos of Leak Were Doctored," Daily Yomiuri, December 22, 1995; "Monju Operator Takes Flak for Leak-Video Coverup," Japan Times, December 22, 1995, p. 2. Back to document

6. Naoaki Usui, "Japanese Host Prefectures Refuse MOX Negotiations," Nucleonics Week, January 25, 1996.Back to document

7. "MITI Criticizes Monju Accident; Plutonium Utilization Program to Undergo Moratorium for the Present," Nihon Keizai Shimbun, June 7, 1996 (in Japanese). Back to document

8. Mark Hibbs, "Minatom Official Calls for Make-or-Break Decision on Krasnoyarsk RT-2 Plant," NuclearFuel, January 1, 1996, pp. 1-2. Back to document

9. Mark Hibbs, "RT-1 Operation Faces Cost Crisis, Uncertain Future Demand Schedule," NuclearFuel, January 1, 1996, p. 10. Back to document

10. Panel on Reactor-Related Options for the Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options, 1995, p. 24. Back to document

11. Fact Sheet, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," September 27, 1993. Back to document

12. "German Utilities Cancel Two BNFL Contracts for Post-Baseload Reprocessing at THORP," SpentFuel, January 9, 1995, pp. 2-3. Back to document

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