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U.S. Pledges Cuts in Plutonium Stockpile
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Miles A. Pomper

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman announced Sept. 17 that the United States would remove an amount of plutonium from its nuclear weapons stockpile sufficient to make at least 1,000 nuclear weapons, likely surpassing a 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement that called for the two Cold War superpowers to shrink the military stocks of this fissile material. A day before, U.S. officials won the support of 11 additional countries for a controversial program that they claim will both reduce nuclear waste and decrease nuclear weapons proliferation.

Excess Plutonium To Become Fuel

Speaking Sept. 17 in Vienna before the International Atomic Energy Agency general conference, Bodman announced that the United States would remove nine metric tons of plutonium in the coming decades from retired, dismantled nuclear warheads. The material would be combined with depleted uranium to form mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors in a plant under construction at Savannah River, South Carolina.

The plutonium would be added to a 52.5-metric-ton stockpile of weapons plutonium that the United States declared as excess in 1994. Not all of the existing stockpile comes from the pits of nuclear weapons, nor is all of it sufficiently pure to be made into MOX fuel.

With the announcement, the United States would still retain 38 metric tons of military plutonium, potentially enough for nearly 10,000 nuclear weapons, about the current size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration has pledged that this arsenal would be cut almost in half by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2002. ) It takes between four and eight kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium to make a modern nuclear weapon.

Depending on the purity of the new and previously declared material, Department of Energy officials said, the United States is likely to be able to have ready for disposal sufficient plutonium to well surpass the terms of the 2000 agreement under which the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.

“The 9 tons will be likely be in addition to the 34 metric tons,” William Tobey, deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, told Global Security Newswire Sept. 19.

The Bush administration had pushed construction of the Savannah River facility as its means of meeting that goal. Yet, funding has only trickled out for years as some lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, have said other strategies should be employed because of the project’s costs, safety concerns, potential proliferation risks, and the failure of Russia to move forward on its end of the deal. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Moreover, much of the plutonium to be turned into MOX fuel at Savannah River is likely to come from the pits of the nuclear weapons, but the United States does not yet have a large-scale capability to dismantle plutonium pits (see above article).

GNEP Grows, but Direction Unclear

The day before his announcement, Bodman shepherded a Vienna meeting of the U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). U.S. officials won additional support for the program, but the outcome raised questions about whether GNEP was conforming to one of its stated rationales.

The Bush administration launched GNEP in February 2006, portraying it in part as a practical means of reinforcing President George W. Bush’s call two years earlier to halt the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities to new countries. Such facilities can provide fuel for nuclear power or fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons.

The effort has been gaining new adherents abroad. Ministers from the initial members of the partnership—China, France, Japan, Russia, and the United States—met Sept. 16 in Vienna for their second high-level meeting. They were joined by representatives from 11 other countries who signed the partnership’s nonbinding statement of principles that day. The new partnership states are Australia, Bulgaria, Ghana, Hungary, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Ukraine. The ministers also established two lower-level working groups for implementing the partnership. 

Yet, the signature of principles signed by the members says that participating states “would not give up any rights,” implicitly referring to rights under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for peaceful cooperation in nuclear energy. Many countries say such rights include the right for all countries to have enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Australia, which has the world’s largest reserves of uranium, has indicated its interest in developing enrichment facilities. So have several other states that sent observers to the meeting, including Argentina and Canada.

South Africa, however, announced Sept. 18 that it would not participate in GNEP, saying that, despite the new language in the statement of principles, it feared that the partnership’s push to renounce fuel capabilities would dash its hopes of enriching its own fuel for nuclear reactors from domestically mined uranium. South Africa had previously developed an enrichment capability as part of its nuclear weapons program but shuttered it when the weapons program ended in 1994.

“We were concerned that some aspects of the GNEP declaration would conflict with our national policy,” Buyelwa Sonjica, the country’s minerals and energy minister, told reporters in Vienna Sept. 18.

“It is a sovereignty issue, to deal with our own nuclear fuel reserves and fuel supply,” Tseliso Maqubela, the ministry’s nuclear program director, told reporters the same day. Nonetheless, Maqubela said that South Africa is seeking foreign partners for its enrichment efforts. “We would prefer to do it with partners,” Maqubela said. “The timeline that we have is going to depend on how much progress we have in attracting partners.”

In Washington, Congress is poised to slash the administration’s funding request for GNEP for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and lawmakers are raising fundamental questions about the program’s direction. Both the House of Representatives and a Senate committee have slashed funding for the program and hampered the administration’s goal of advancing it beyond the research and development stage.

The administration had requested $395 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which underpins the GNEP program, and an additional $10 million to fund GNEP as a nonproliferation effort. But the House would only provide $120 million in its version of spending legislation for fiscal year 2008, while the Senate would provide $242 million.

The House has been particularly critical of the program. In its June report, the House Appropriations Committee said it “does not support the Department’s rushed, poorly-defined, expansive, and expensive [GNEP] proposal, particularly the administration’s intention to move quickly to commercial-scale reprocessing facilities.” Both the House and the Senate reports called for the administration to focus instead on research. The House panel also said that the nonproliferation aspects of GNEP are “unpersuasive and largely contradictory.”

Posted: October 1, 2007