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DOE Requests Funds for Plutonium Disposal

Christine Kucia

Asking for a $312 million increase in its nonproliferation spending, the Department of Energy released its budget request for fiscal year 2004 on February 3. Most of the new funds would be used to begin construction on a controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant to dispose of U.S. weapons-grade plutonium.

Of the $1.3 billion requested for the department’s nuclear nonproliferation activities, $609.4 million would go toward U.S. surplus fissile material disposition, according to budget documents released by the agency. Of that amount, $415.6 million will support construction of a facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina intended to convert 34 metric tons of U.S. plutonium into MOX fuel. Previous years’ appropriations supported design studies for the facility, and funds in the fiscal year 2004 budget will be used to complete the design phase and begin building the plant.

The Bush administration’s controversial plan for disposing of U.S. stocks of plutonium, which will fulfill U.S. obligations under an agreement negotiated with Russia in June 2000, accounts for 83 percent of the rise in the department’s proposed nonproliferation spending. Critics contend that MOX fuel fabrication is a more costly route than the alternative, plutonium immobilization, and poses a greater proliferation risk. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

The proposed budget also includes funding for the Accelerated Materials Disposition initiative. That program stems from an agreement between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in May 2002 which stipulated that the United States will increase assistance to Russia to help it dispose of more fissile material. The $30 million requested for the program in fiscal year 2004 will allow the United States government to purchase more highly enriched uranium from Russia and support the conversion of more highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium. Converting research and test reactors in Russia to use low-enriched uranium is also a priority under the program.

International safeguards would also receive a substantial boost under the Energy Department’s fiscal year 2004 budget. The proposed budget includes $15.7 million in funding to help strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency’s role in developing and enforcing mechanisms to combat proliferation and terrorism with weapons of mass destruction—a 56 percent request from its fiscal year 2003 request of less than $9.9 million.

The remainder of the Energy Department’s nonproliferation budget—which was drafted and presented to Congress prior to the finalization of the department’s fiscal year 2003 funding—closely follows the pattern of spending in the previous year.

The Department of Energy’s nonproliferation program is the largest component of U.S. nonproliferation efforts, which also include programs in the Defense and State Departments. The State Department’s fiscal year 2004 budget request includes a 133 percent jump in funding to $35 million for the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund, which helps to halt proliferation of advanced conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and related materials and technologies.