U.S. to Continue Plutonium Disposition Pact With Russia

Philipp C. Bleek

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced January 23 that the Bush administration will continue implementing a U.S.-Russian agreement to make 34 metric tons of military plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. However, the administration intends to pursue only one of two methods that the Clinton administration had planned to use in disposing of the plutonium.

The White House had reportedly considered scrapping the two-year-old program altogether following a preliminary review last summer. (See ACT, September 2001.) But the administration’s skeptical stance toward threat reduction programs in the former Soviet Union has tempered in recent months, following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the completion of an administration review of the programs, which wrapped up in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

After years of internal debate, the Clinton administration had settled on a two-part approach to disposing of the plutonium, primarily because of technical uncertainties: it planned to convert 25.6 tons of the plutonium to mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and to immobilize another 8.4 tons in ceramic and glass. If either method proved not to be viable, the other would still be available to dispose of excess materials. The fact that some of the material is not readily suitable for conversion to MOX also factored into the Clinton administration’s decision.

Abraham indicated that the Bush administration now plans to dispose of almost all the plutonium by converting it into MOX fuel, which will be utilized in nuclear power reactors. The Energy Department will process 25.6 tons of the plutonium directly into MOX and subject another 6.4 tons to “enhanced purification” prior to converting it into nuclear fuel. But two tons of the material the Clinton administration had designated for immobilization are considered “very impure” and are not suitable for MOX. Instead of immobilizing this material, the Energy Department will process it for long-term storage and will identify another two tons of plutonium to convert to MOX fuel to meet the 34-tonne goal of the U.S.-Russian agreement.

Abraham emphasized that “reducing costs” was a key factor in the decision to abandon immobilization. The Energy Department expects the program to cost $3.8 billion over 20 years, a substantial decrease from a March 2001 department estimate of $6.6 billion for the full “dual-track” program. That earlier estimate projected the total cost of preparing the plutonium for disposition and making it into MOX at $4.6 billion, with immobilization costing another $1.5 billion and storage and support for both tracks adding about $500 million. It remains unclear why the department expects costs for MOX manufacturing to decrease dramatically, given the substantial increase in the amount of material to be converted. Energy Department officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

South Carolina Stall Continues

The decision to abandon immobilization formally, an approach the administration suspended last summer, continues to cause domestic complications. South Carolina’s governor and U.S. congressional representatives are concerned that, because some of the plutonium is not readily suitable for processing into MOX, the state’s Savannah River Site, the only complex currently due to receive plutonium under the disposition plan, will be required to store the material on a long-term basis. Officials have demanded that the Energy Department provide a clear timetable for shipments into and out of the state.

The Energy Department began consultations with state officials in January, but the two sides have not yet reached agreement. Language incorporated into the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization act requires the department to consult with South Carolina, to provide 30 days’ notice to Congress before shipping the plutonium to the Savannah River Site, and to submit to Congress by February 1 a comprehensive plan for plutonium disposition.

The Energy Department has not yet provided Congress with notice of planned plutonium shipments, but it has submitted its disposition plan. Dated February 15, the plan reiterates Energy Department assurances that all plutonium shipped to the Savannah River Site will subsequently be removed. However, it fails to provide information on the disposition of the plutonium that is not suitable for processing into MOX.