To help meet their obligations under a fissile material agreement with Washington, Russian officials agreed in December to dispose of excess plutonium using a design of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant offered to them by the United States.
The U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy accepted the U.S. offer of a Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster (DCS) design for a MOX fuel facility at the December 3-4 meeting of the commission overseeing the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. The plant will mix the plutonium with uranium to create MOX fuel, which is usable in nuclear reactors. The United States and Russia agreed in September 2000 to each dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium no longer required for military purposes beginning in 2007.
“This will greatly accelerate the Russian disposition effort, help to ensure parallelism between the two programs, save money and time by avoiding the need to design Russian facilities for conversion and MOX fuel fabrication, and provide for greater material security,” Bryan Wilkes, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said December 20.
The decision to provide MOX technology to Russia is controversial, however, because of proliferation risks. Plutonium could be diverted during transport to a MOX site or during the MOX fuel cycle. It is also possible to separate MOX fuel for its components, which could be used to develop nuclear weapons, so the possibility that Russia might sell its MOX to other countries is a concern.
In addition, operating a MOX plant safely requires significant security measures, which could detract from efforts to secure nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons at other Russian sites, given Russia’s limited resources.
The alternative method for disposing of plutonium is immobilization, in which the plutonium is sealed in special glass containers that are then buried. Although immobilization poses some environmental hazards, it is not considered a proliferation risk.
Proposals to use MOX technology to dispose of plutonium in Russia have received only limited support from Group of Eight countries—the main contributors to dismantlement programs in the former Soviet Union. Lack of political and financial support in 2000 and 2001 led the German company Siemens AG to abandon plans to ship a prefabricated MOX plant to Russia, according to an August 2001 report in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Russia initially wanted to research and design its own MOX technology but could neither afford to fund the endeavor itself nor secure foreign assistance. Giving Moscow the facility design might help keep Russia closer to the plutonium disposition schedule set out in the 2000 agreement, but converting the plutonium to MOX fuel will likely cost much more than immobilization.
According to a February 2002 Energy Department report, the costs of processing the plutonium in a MOX facility are substantially higher than immobilization. Converting plutonium into MOX fuel could cost $3.3-5.4 billion for the United States, while immobilizing the material could cost in the $2.0-3.2 billion range. Despite the cost difference, the Bush administration in January 2002 reversed a Clinton administration decision to utilize both methods, opting instead to convert almost all of the required 34 metric tons of plutonium into MOX fuel. (See ACT, March 2002.)
The MOX program remains the more attractive option for Russia because the fuel can be reused in its own reactors or shipped to other countries—an option left open in the September 2000 agreement.