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U.S. Revisits Plutonium Disposition Plan

Daniel Horner

The United States is planning to slow down construction of the facility that is the centerpiece of its effort to get rid of plutonium withdrawn from its nuclear weapons program and is considering pursuing “an alternative plutonium disposition strategy,” the Obama administration said last month in documents supporting its fiscal year 2014 budget request.

Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is obliged to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium. A U.S. facility now under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is designed to turn the plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in U.S. nuclear power reactors.

The MOX project and its counterpart in Russia, which also would turn surplus plutonium into reactor fuel but would irradiate it in a different kind of reactor, have long been controversial in nonproliferation circles. Some nonproliferation specialists support it, saying the program is a good example of U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and security issues. Turning the plutonium into reactor fuel and irradiating it in a reactor will alleviate concerns about securing the material against thieves or terrorists, particularly in Russia, they say.

Others have opposed the effort on nonproliferation grounds, saying that putting plutonium into civilian programs actually increases the risks that it will fall into the wrong hands. It also undermines U.S. efforts to discourage other countries from pursuing civilian nuclear programs that use plutonium, these critics say.

The United States “remains very firmly committed” to the 2000 agreement, acting NNSA Administrator Neile Miller emphasized during a conference call with reporters on April 10, the day the budget request was released. But because of current budget constraints, she said, the administration wants to take a fresh look at whether construction of the MOX fuel facility “continues to be the best option at best value to accomplish the commitments under that agreement with the Russians or whether there is another option we ought to be thinking about pursuing.”

The fiscal year 2014 budget request proposes spending $320 million for construction of the MOX fuel facility, a drop from the $435 million that Congress appropriated for that purpose for fiscal year 2012, according to the detailed budget justification document for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department whose responsibilities include nuclear nonproliferation. The fiscal year 2013 appropriation has not been firmly set.

The request for operations and maintenance activities supporting the MOX program is $158 million, compared to the $206 million appropriated for fiscal year 2012.

Under NNSA’s latest estimate, the total cost of the MOX fuel facility construction project rose from $4.8 billion to $7.7 billion and the starting date for MOX fuel fabrication slipped from 2016 to 2019. The 2019 figure represents the estimate before the planned slowdown.

The project previously had suffered a number of other cost increases and schedule slippages. It has cost $3.7 billion since work began in 1999, according to the NNSA.

In the budget document, the projected annual request for fiscal years 2015-2018 for the NNSA’s Office of Fissile Materials Disposition is between $220 million and $250 million, with the bulk of those amounts to be spent on plutonium disposition operations and maintenance. The budget line for construction of the MOX fuel plant has zeroes for the four fiscal years starting with 2015.

Those figures, however, should be considered “placeholder” numbers, Andrew Bieniawski, NNSA assistant deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said during the press call.

Rumors about a serious blow to the MOX fuel fabrication project had been circulating for weeks, and some observers had said that even if the project were not canceled outright, a dramatic funding cut or slowdown in the schedule would be, as one former NNSA official, “tantamount to killing it.” That is because uncertainty about the future of the project would cause workers to leave for more-certain work elsewhere, he said. During the April 10 call, Miller acknowledged that there would be a “workforce impact,” but said that continuing the project still was an option under serious consideration.

With regard to the effect on the Russian program, Miller said that Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman had spoken with his Russian counterpart the previous day about the current U.S. plans for the program. Since then, the two countries’ lead negotiators on plutonium disposition, Michael Guhin of the United States and Vladimir Kuchinov of Russia, met in Washington on April 25.

The main message that U.S. officials are conveying to the Russians is that the United States has decided to review how it gets rid of plutonium, not whether it does, a U.S. official said in an interview last month. The United States had previously planned to dispose some of its less-pure excess plutonium through nonreactor options, most notably by one of several methods of mixing the plutonium with high-level waste that ultimately would go to a geological repository.

Russia historically has opposed U.S. adoption of that approach for plutonium taken from pits and other relatively pure stocks, arguing that the plutonium could be recovered more easily than if it had been irradiated in a reactor. The U.S. official said that the United States had not agreed with that argument but that initial Russian responses to news of the U.S. review involved “no prejudgment and no rehashing” of previous disagreements.

He also noted that although the current version of the 2000 agreement specifies reactor disposition, it allows in Article III for “any other methods that may be agreed by the Parties in writing.”

In an April 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Vladimir Rybachenkov, a former Russian diplomat now with the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow, said if the U.S. program “is only slowed down[,] this will not have a serious impact on the Russian one.” He cautioned, however, that a “real problem may pop up” if the United States decides to switch to plutonium vitrification, one of the methods of mixing plutonium with high-level waste.

He said he “strongly” believes that the United States “will take into consideration Russia’s position,” as the 2000 agreement might break down otherwise. He said he believes that both countries “attach great political importance” to the successful implementation of the disposition agreement and “will do their best to reach this goal.”