Administration May Abandon Plutonium Disposition Project

Philipp C. Bleek

The Bush administration is reportedly considering pulling out of a troubled U.S.-Russian project to make substantial quantities of military plutonium unusable for weapons purposes.

Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times reported August 21 that the National Security Council is likely to recommend abandoning the plutonium disposition program. A former Clinton administration official substantiated that account during an interview but emphasized that the issue remains undecided due, in large part, to resistance from both the Department of Energy and Congress. The Energy Department did not return calls seeking comment.

At an August 21 press briefing, State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said that an administration review of the project had “recently” concluded and that the administration plans to “consult with Congress prior to making any decisions.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in June 2000 to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-origin plutonium. Russia plans to convert its plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, which it will irradiate in nuclear reactors, while the United States plans to irradiate 25.5 tons of material and immobilize another 8.5 tons in ceramic and glass. (Washington also intends to immobilize about 18 additional tons of non-weapons-grade plutonium.)

The initiative’s substantial and rising cost is one key factor apparently driving the administration to reconsider the project. A March 2001 Energy Department analysis projects the total cost of implementing the U.S. half of the project at $6.6 billion, up from a previous estimate of approximately $4 billion. The more than 50 percent increase results largely from the irradiation component’s rising costs.

The Energy Department analysis projected the cost of the Russian half of the initiative at about $1.8 billion, only slightly above previous estimates. But another March 2001 analysis by a joint U.S.-Russian working group places that figure between $1.8 billion and $2.8 billion, the broad range due in large part to technical uncertainties.

Concerns about costs led the administration to suspend design work on a plutonium immobilization plant earlier this year. John Gordon, head of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, told a House Armed Services subcommittee in June that the suspension was required to spread program costs over a longer period of time. But Gordon assured lawmakers that, despite the suspension, the department “continues to pursue” both irradiation and immobilization.

The Energy Department has reassigned program staff involved in the immobilization project and is dismantling key infrastructure, signaling that the suspension is unlikely to be short term.

The situation has alarmed South Carolinian officials, who are concerned that the immobilization track’s suspension will require their state to store some of the processed material on a long-term basis. The state’s Savannah River nuclear site is due to begin processing plutonium to prepare it for both irradiation and immobilization in the coming months, but a substantial portion of the plutonium is not readily suitable for irradiation.

State officials have indicated they intend to hold the entire disposition program hostage until their concerns are addressed. South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges has repeatedly pledged to use all means at his disposal, including state police roadblocks, to prevent plutonium from entering the state without an agreement on long-term disposal plans. In an August 27 letter to the Energy Department, Hodges insisted on an agreement that is “legally binding” and includes a “definite timetable for shipping plutonium out of South Carolina after processing for disposition.”

At Hodges’ request, Representative John Spratt (D-SC) added language to the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization bill that bars shipments of plutonium to Savannah River absent an Energy Department report on plutonium disposal options. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) has added language to the Energy appropriations bill requiring the department to consult with South Carolina and to also prepare a report.

Energy Undersecretary Robert Card responded August 27, providing written assurances to Hodges that shipments would be postponed, provided “good faith discussions” begin “rapidly.” He added that the department believes agreement can be reached “before mid-October.” It remains unclear, however, how Energy officials intend to meet the state’s concerns without a near-term resumption of work on the immobilization track.

The Russian Program

Although the U.S. program has experienced difficulties, Russia’s disposition effort has essentially failed to get off the ground. When the initiative was launched, Washington agreed to contribute $200 million to the Russian program, pledged to seek an additional $200 million at a later time, and called on other developed countries to help finance the program. However, additional international financial pledges to date—including about $100 million from the United Kingdom, approximately $60 million from France, and roughly $34 million from Japan—are far from sufficient.

Participants at last year’s Group of Eight summit pledged to agree on an international financing plan for the project by this year’s summit in Genoa, Italy. But the Genoa summit, held July 20-22, appeared to yield no substantial progress, raising questions about the initiative’s viability.

Further dimming prospects for the project’s implementation, Siemens, a German technology conglomerate, announced in late August that it will begin to dismantle a plant it had offered to Russia for the disposition effort. In an interview, Helmut Rupar, Siemens’ director for the project, said that, because the Genoa summit failed to yield enough progress on financing the plant’s move to Russia, his company felt no further obligation to maintain the facility.

Building a new plant would likely cost far more than moving the already-constructed Siemens plant, substantially raising costs for the cash-strapped initiative. However, Rupar indicated that Russia would likely buy some of the plant’s components, once the facility is dismantled.