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Catastrophe That Can Be Avoided

Plutonium:Producers must commit to security; governments must help with disposal.

March 10, 2000|LUTHER J. CARTER and THOMAS H. PIGFORD | Luther J. Carter is a Washington writer who specializes in nuclear issues. Thomas H. Pigford is a professor of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley. This article is adapted from a longer piece in the winter 1999-2000 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences

The horrendous risk of weapons plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists gets attention from policy makers and experts. Yet while commercial plutonium poses similar dangers--less than 20 pounds of the stuff delivered by van could devastate a major city--disturbingly little is being done about it.

For nearly three decades, foreign producers of commercial plutonium, mainly in France and Britain, have ignored all appeals that they stop separating plutonium from spent power reactor fuel by shutting down their chemical reprocessing plants.

So how about a deal: Let the commercial producers stop separating plutonium and commit themselves to secure plutonium disposition. In return, governments--in the U.S., Europe, Russia, Japan and elsewhere--would build the geologic repositories required for secure plutonium disposal and for the growing inventory of unreprocessed spent reactor fuel and other highly radioactive waste. Several circumstances make this proposition compelling:

* The nuclear industry's need for repositories has long been frustrated by the public's "not-in-my-backyard" mind-set and the fact that governments have not given priority to the geologic disposal problem. Yet failure to solve the waste problem is a major obstacle to broad public acceptance of nuclear energy.

* While the nuclear industry's need for repositories is great, its need for plutonium is nil. Plutonium is a byproduct of uranium fission. Recovering plutonium from spent uranium fuel by reprocessing and making it into new fuel was seen as the way for uranium's energy potential to be vastly extended. Yet reprocessing and recycling have turned out to be economic losers, not least because uranium, once believed scarce, has turned out to be abundant and cheap.

* The political burden that fuel reprocessing and plutonium recycling have placed on the nuclear industry will grow increasingly heavy from a growing public awareness of the risks involved. It is when separated from the massive, highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies that plutonium becomes most susceptible to theft or forcible seizure. Furthermore, the risk of malefactors intervening increases with recycling as the plutonium is shipped from reprocessing centers to fuel fabrication plants, then shipped as fresh, only lightly radioactive plutonium fuel.

Plutonium producers already are suffering acute political embarrassments. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. is being criticized by regulators there and members of Parliament because Japan is sending back plutonium fuel that was fraudulently certified. Cogema, the French producer, also must worry because, if Japan turns against plutonium recycling, the greater part of its own foreign business will be lost. Germany, once Cogema's and BNFL's other major foreign customer, is turning its back on new commitments to plutonium recycling.

In sum, the plutonium producers are in a situation from which they had better seek a way out.

U.S. officials have an "agreement in principle" with Russia, a minor producer of commercial plutonium, that it will suspend its reprocessing in return for greater financial aid. Otherwise, the record of the U.S. and other countries in dealing with commercial plutonium is wretched.

What's needed is for everybody outside the plutonium production and recycling business--and that means government leaders here and abroad, the nonproliferation community and much of the nuclear industry--to urge the plutonium producers to switch to a plutonium disposition campaign in return for a new urgency by governments in building the geologic repositories needed.

Two disposition technologies are available: immobilizing plutonium along with intensely radioactive fission products in massive glass logs, and making plutonium into fuel to be made highly radioactive in power reactors.

The United States will use these technologies to dispose of its surplus weapons plutonium. The nuclear industries of France and Britain could use them to render all the world's separated civil plutonium, plus Russia's surplus military plutonium, resistant to proliferation. Placing the spent plutonium fuel and immobilized plutonium deep underground would make disposal still more secure and irreversible.

This is how to cope with a risk of catastrophe.

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