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For release January 4, 2001
Commercial Plutonium Is a Rapidly Growing Proliferation Danger, New Report Finds
US-Russian Agreement on Military Plutonium Sacrifices Non-Proliferation Goals
$100 billion Already Spent Worldwide in the Futile Effort to Commercialize Plutonium
Takoma Park, Maryland: A new report examining the commercial plutonium industry has concluded that the futile effort to commercialize plutonium as a fuel has so far cost about $100 billion, worldwide (1999 dollars) and is costing billions more annually. And it has created vast new proliferation dangers to boot. The report, Plutonium End Game: Managing Global Stocks of Separated Weapons-Usable Commercial and Surplus Nuclear Weapons Plutonium, was issued today by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). Japan and France have been the top spenders on commercial plutonium.
“Commercial plutonium stocks are the most rapidly growing element of nuclear-weapons-usable materials in the world,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of IEER and author of the report.
The report estimated that the total current stocks of weapons-usable commercial plutonium are over 210 metric tons, which is enough for over 25,000 nuclear bombs.
“Thirty metric tons of commercial are stored in Russia in thousands of stainless steel cans. It is difficult task to keep track of them and make sure they are all there. Theft of even a couple of cans would be a proliferation nightmare. Yet, instead of attempting to get Russia to stop further increases in its commercial plutonium stocks, the United States has agreed to subsidize Russia’s commercial plutonium fuel plans in the name of non-proliferation,” Dr. Makhijani said.
The United States and Russia signed an agreement on September 1, 2000 that would create a plutonium fuel fabrication plant in Russia with Western funds in order to convert surplus military plutonium into a reactor fuel (called mixed oxide or MOX fuel). The United States is planning to build a similar plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Though the agreement has been signed, the two sides could not agree on who would bear the liability for the program. Those liabilities could be enormous, especially as the West is pushing Russia to use plutonium fuel in Russian light water reactors. The Russian nuclear ministry has been reluctant to use plutonium fuel in such reactors, which were not designed for plutonium fuel. There is a low probability of accidents on the scale of Chernobyl in all commercial reactor designs. The use of plutonium as a fuel, especially under conditions of lax regulation in Russia, could increase those risks, the report noted.
“The US-Russian agreement on plutonium disposition has given away the non-proliferation store,” said Dr. Makhijani. “It allows Russia to make plutonium fuel and to re-extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel possibly as soon as ten or fifteen years after the start of implementation. Russia’s stocks of commercial plutonium will grow even if the program succeeds in reducing the stocks of military plutonium.”
The report recommends that:
- Commercial reprocessing be should be stopped worldwide.
- The West should not encourage the Russian nuclear ministry in its plans to create a plutonium economy.
- The West should offer to purchase all separated Russian commercial plutonium and all surplus military plutonium and pay to immobilize it (i.e., put it into a non-weapons-usable form that is also resistant to theft) and store it in Russia under international safeguards. That would vastly reduce proliferation dangers.
- The United States should also immobilize all its commercial and surplus military plutonium and store it under international safeguards in the United States.
- The quest for plutonium as a commercial fuel should be abandoned. Wind energy is already far more economical and much safer.