Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

CRS Report for Congress # 97-564 ENR

Nuclear Weapons: Disposal Options for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium

May 22, 1997

Craig M. Johnson
Research Assistant
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

Zachary S. Davis
International Nuclear Policy Specialist
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division


With the end of the Cold War, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START), and other agreements, the United States and Russia have dramatically reduced their arsenals of nuclear weapons. As a result, each side has accumulated large stockpiles of plutonium, one of the principal materials used in nuclear warheads. The United States recently declared a holding of approximately 50 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium excess to military needs. Even greater levels are believed to exist in Russia.

Ensuring the plutonium's safe and secure disposal is a priority of the Clinton Administration, nonproliferation advocates, and others. As the National Academy of Sciences declared, "The existence of this surplus material constitutes a clear and present danger to national and international security.' 'l The principal concern is that Russian plutonium, if not securely disposed of, could be diverted to terrorist groups or to states aspiring to build nuclear weapons. Some experts believe that Russia will not reduce its stockpile unless the United States engages Moscow in a cooperative, simultaneous plutonium disposal program.

On January 14, 1997, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a Record of Decision for disposing of U.S. surplus weapons-usable plutonium. It recommended converting an unspecified quantity into mixed oxide fuel (MOX), which would be "burned" in domestic commercial reactors, and immobilizing at least eight tons in glass (vitrification) or a ceramic compound. The purpose of the plan is to demonstrate U.S. commitment to irreversible nuclear disarmament and ensure that Russia begins disposing of its excess plutonium as well. DOE is requesting $80 million in FY1998 for the plutonium disposal program.

The two-track plan has since become the center of much debate within Congress and the nuclear community. Some argue that the decision to burn MOX fuel threatens to reverse a 20-year U.S. policy against using plutonium fuel in civilian reactors. This has led many to conclude that the United States should pursue only immobilization. Others believe that if the MOX option, which is Russia's preferred choice, is rejected, the United States will be less able to influence Russia's plutonium disposition policies.

There is also some concern that a near-term decision on permanent disposal may be premature. Many intermediary steps must occur between weapons dismantlement and geological disposal that are still hindered by political, economic, technical, and international uncertainties. Until these factors are settled, long-term storage may be the de facto outcome.


Introduction 	1
Issues for Congress 	3
Costs and Funding 	4
Nuclear Nonproliferation 	4
Russian Reciprocity 	4
Location of Major Facilities 	5
Utility Concerns 	5
U.S. and Russian Plutonium Stockpiles 	6
U.S. Inventories and Storage Sites 	6
Estimates of Russian Stockpile 	7
Implementation of Two-Track Plutonium Disposition 	8
Immobilization	9
Mixed Oxide Fuel 	10
Canadian Reactors 	11
Plutonium Conversion 	12
Spent Fuel Standard 	13
Disposal Cost Estimates 	14
Nonproliferation 	16
Russian Disposition Issues 	18
Gaining Russian Cooperation 	18
U.S.-Russian Agreements 	19
For Additional Reading 	20


With the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have dramatically reduced their nuclear arsenals and are dismantling hundreds of nuclear warheads each year. As a result, both nations possess growing stockpiles of excess plutonium, a key nuclear weapons material. Although the U.S. government is confident about the security of its own plutonium stockpile, the Russian stockpile could pose significant risks until it is disposed of.

The United States and Russia currently are attempting to agree on one or more disposal methods. Major options that have been considered include:

*"Burning" as nuclear reactor fuel. Plutonium from nuclear weapons can be blended with uranium to make "mixed oxide" (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. Most of the original plutonium nuclei would be irreversibly fragmented (fissioned) over the course of several years in a nuclear reactor, although a small amount of new plutonium would be created at the same time. After removal from a reactor, the spent fuel containing radioactive fission products that make it difficult to use its plutonium in weapons could be sent to a deep underground repository for permanent disposal.

* Mixing with radioactive waste. Plutonium could be diluted with highly radioactive waste, solidified in glass or ceramic material, and emplaced in a repository. Although the weapons-grade plutonium would not be destroyed in the process, retrieval would require considerable time, effort, and special facilities.

* Destruction in accelerators or advanced reactors. Nearly complete fissioning of weapons plutonium might be achieved with powerful particle accelerators, advanced types of nuclear reactors, or a combination of technologies. However, such advanced technologies would require more development work than other options.

* Direct disposal in deep boreholes. Boreholes drilled as deep as 2.5 miles into stable geologic formations might be used for permanent disposal of sealed packages of surplus plutonium. Plutonium would be emplaced in the bottom half of the borehole, while the top half would be filled with sealant. The plutonium would be much deeper than in currently planned geologic repositories, which are no more than 2,150 feet under the surface.

* Subseabed or space disposal. Plutonium placed deeply underneath the ocean floor or launched into space would be virtually irretrievable, but concerns about safety, ocean contamination, and cost have limited the consideration of these options.

* Indefinite secure storage. Secure storage of weapons plutonium could minimize the risk of theft or diversion, although the likelihood of establishing secure long-term storage in Russia is uncertain. Moreover, the continued existence of plutonium stockpiles would make it easier for the United States and Russia to rebuild their nuclear arsenals.

The Russian government, which considers plutonium to be a valuable national energy resource, has expressed interest primarily in reactor-based disposal options, such as use as MOX fuel. Within the United States there have been some reservations about this form of disposal, primarily because of concern that widespread use of plutonium fuel could create increase opportunities for diversion of fissile material for nuclear weapons programs. In September 1996, a joint U.S.-Russian task force concluded that using weapons-grade plutonium to fuel commercial nuclear reactors was the most technically mature option, followed by the option of blending the plutonium with highly radioactive waste. 2

Mindful of the above study, as well as reports from the Office of Technology Assessment, the National Academy of Sciences, and the President's 1993 Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy (see below), the Department of Energy (DOE) on January 14, 1997, released a Record of Decision for a "two-track" plan for disposal of U.S. weapons-usable plutonium. The recommended strategy is to simultaneously:

* immobilize at least eight tons of U.S. surplus plutonium in glass or ceramic material, and

* "burn" an as-yet-undetermined quantity as mixed oxide fuel in existing, domestic, commercial light water reactors, or in Canadian commercial reactors.

The exact amounts for either option in the two tracks will not be determined until additional technological development and testing takes place. 3

The stated goal of the dual-track plan is to support U.S. nuclear weapons nonproliferation policy by reducing global stockpiles of excess fissile materials so that they may never again be used in weapons. The program is designed to demonstrate the United States' commitment to its nonproliferation goals, as specified in the President's Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy of 1993, and to stimulate similar action by other nations such as Russia, where stockpiles of surplus weapons-usable fissile materials may be less secure from potential theft or diversion than those in the United States. 4

The United States is not planning to dispose of its surplus plutonium unilaterally. Before disposal operations begin, reciprocal action is expected by Russia, which could be pursuant to a plutonium disposal treaty or other formal agreements. Russia's continued production of weapons-usable plutonium could complicate the matter. Russia also may require financing of the necessary facilities to implement its plutonium disposal program. Given these obstacles, it may be a number of years before final disposal plans are fully developed.

Issues for Congress

Before the United States commits itself to plutonium disposition, numerous issues that may involve legislative action or oversight must be resolved. The range of disposal options noted above, the location of new processing, storage, and disposal facilities, the impact on U.S. nuclear weapons nonproliferation policy, and Russia's disposal commitments are among the major factors that Congress is likely to consider. Three committees in the Senate and one in the House have grappled with plutonium disposal issues since the breakup of the Soviet Union. 5

Congressional action will be needed to provide funding for the plutonium disposition program, authorization of new facilities, and approval of any treaties that may be negotiated. Authorization of new DOE facilities for fuel fabrication, plutonium processing, and other plutonium disposal activities may include the selection of specific sites, as well as the designation of a nuclear safety regulator, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Costs and Funding

DOE estimates that disposing of surplus U.S. plutonium utilizing the two-track approach will be around $2.3 billion. Given various technological uncertainties, however, the program could cost upwards of $4.8 billion over 20 years, according to DOE. 6 Major potential costs include fabrication of MOX fuel, blending plutonium in a glass or ceramic mixture, and payments to nuclear utilities for burning MOX fuel. Subsidies for Russia's plutonium processing and disposal facilities may also be an issue.

Funding for DOE's fissile materials disposition program rose from $36 million in FY1996 to $68 million in FY1997, and the Clinton Administration has requested $84 million for FY1998. (All but about $4 million per year is for plutonium disposition efforts.) Major activities of the program include analysis and design of facilities, laboratory tests of plutonium mixtures, preparations for the MOX fuel option, and joint tests and demonstrations with Russia. 7

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Concerns have been raised that converting U.S. weapons plutonium to commercial reactor fuel could undermine U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy, which discourages the civil use of plutonium throughout the world. Plutonium is created in all of today's commercial reactors and can be chemically separated from other elements of spent fuel to make new fuel or weapons. Opponents of the MOX option contend that widespread commercial use of plutonium for fuel would increase the risk of plutonium diversion for weapons.

However, DOE contends that the MOX fuel option would not contradict U.S. nonproliferation policy, because plutonium loaded into U.S. reactors would be from the existing surplus stockpile. No additional plutonium would be separated to make the fuel, and all MOX fuel fabrication facilities would be permanently closed after the surplus weapons plutonium was used up.

Russian Reciprocity

Whether it would be in the United States' interest to help implement the reactor option in Russia is a contentious issue. It is unclear, for example, whether Russia would commit to restricting facilities for MOX fabrication solely to the disposal of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons as the U.S. intends or if Moscow might also introduce plutonium separated from civilian spent fuel.

If Russia uses plutonium separated from commercial reactors, it is questionable whether U.S. objectives of decreasing Russian stockpiles and discouraging the use of separated plutonium in reactors can be met. Russia may also wish to use a MOX fuel fabrication plant to sell plutonium-based fuel on the global market. Given Russian support for reprocessing spent fuel to separate plutonium and uranium, construction of such a plant may actually lead to increased quantities of separated plutonium in Russia.

It is also undetermined whether Russia would dispose of spent fuel from MOX in a geologic repository after a once-through fuel cycle, as is the stated plan of the United States. If Russia instead reprocesses its MOX fuel, it could recover unfissioned weapons plutonium along with newly created plutonium. As a result, the Russian plutonium stockpile could grow while the U.S. stockpile was diminishing. A further complication is that Russia has not yet declared the size of its existing stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, making it difficult to estimate comparable reductions for both sides

Such concerns will probably have to be addressed before U.S. plutonium disposal facilities are authorized by Congress. Verifiable plutonium disposition agreements between the United States and Russia might take the form of an official treaty requiring Senate ratification.

Location of Major Facilities

Major new facilities will be required to implement either of DOE's selected plutonium disposition options. The immobilization route calls for construction of glassification (vitrification) or ceramic-based processing facilities, while a MOX fuel fabrication plant would be needed to implement the reactor fuel option. For both methods, a facility would be required to convert plutonium metal warhead components to non-secret oxide forms. Possible locations for such facilities include the Hanford Site in Washington, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and the Pantex Plant in Texas. 9

Utility Concerns

Given the capital modifications utilities would need to undertake to prepare their reactors for handling MOX, they would undoubtedly want solid assurances that the government will stay the course once disposition begins. Similarly, considering the expenses associated with fabricating MOX, the federal government probably will want guarantees that utilities will not withdraw from burning MOX until the excess stockpile is destroyed. Ensuring against both of those possibilities may require legislation aimed at locking in long-term commitments to the mission. Substantial subsidies to nuclear power plant owners might also prove necessary.

Any DOE negotiations with utilities on this matter may be complicated by the restructuring of the electric power industry now occurring. As a result of increased competition in the generation sector of the industry, the economics of continuing to operate some existing nuclear stations has been called into question. As a result, utilities might be reluctant to accept long-term contracts to use MOX fuel, which would commit them to keep operating a reactor they might otherwise shut down. The amount of any needed subsidy or other contractual arrangements, might be affected by this uncertainty. 10

U.S. and Russian Plutonium Stockpiles

Plutonium (Pu) is one of the two fissile materials used in nuclear weapons. The other is the uranium isotope U-235. Unlike U-236, which makes up a small fraction of natural uranium, plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors, including commercial reactors. This occurs when U-238, the dominant isotope in natural uranium, is bombarded with neutrons released during a nuclear chain reaction. The uranium captures neutrons and decays into Pu-239. The plutonium can then be extracted for use in nuclear warheads.

Plutonium is considered weapons-grade if it contains at least 93 percent Pu-239. Fuel-grade plutonium contains from seven to less than 19 percent Pu-240, and power reactor-grade plutonium contains levels of 19 percent and greater Pu-240.1' Distinguishing plutonium by its grade, however, obscures the fact that all grades are weapons usable. Less than six kilograms of plutonium, about the size of a baseball, is needed to make a bomb.l2

U.S. Inventories and Storage Sites

The United States possesses 99.5 tons of plutonium either in DOE inventories or in nuclear weapons controlled by the Department of Defense. l3

In 1988 the United States ceased producing plutonium for weapons. This halt became official policy on July 13, 1992, with President Bush's announcement that the United States would no longer produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

On March 1, 1995, on advice from the Nuclear Weapons Council, President Clinton declared more than 52 tons of plutonium surplus to national security requirements.'4 That declaration placed a ceiling on U.S. nuclear forces, because the excess plutonium is not authorized for use in nuclear weapons. The stockpile of plutonium that continues to be held in reserve, however, has been deemed adequate for maintaining projected military needs.

The United States currently stores surplus weapons-grade plutonium at six sites:

* Hanford Site (Washington), 1.7 metric tons;

* Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 0.4 metric tons;

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico), 1.5 metric tons;

* Pantex Plant (Texas), 21.3 metric tons (including plutonium from planned weapon dismantlements);

* Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site (Colorado), 11.9 metric tons; and

* Savannah River Site (South Carolina), 1.3 metric tons.

The United States also holds an excess stockpile of 13.2 tons of fuel-grade plutonium and 1.2 tons of reactor-grade plutonium. The listed quantities do not include nonsurplus inventories, such as strategic reserves, programmatic materials, and non-weapons-usable materials.l5

Estimates of Russian Stockpile

Unlike the United States, Russia has not made a specific declaration of excess plutonium. Unclassified sources estimate Russian holdings of approximately 200 tons, with 30 tons separated for civilian purposes and never designated for weapons use.l6 To achieve equal levels of military plutonium stockpiles, a goal the United States and Russia share, Russia will need to declare more than 100 tons of weapons plutonium surplus as well as the 30 tons of civilian material, according to DOE.l7

Russia currently stores plutonium at a number of sites, many with inadequate security systems. A Russian military prosecutor who investigated the theft of fuel rods from a Russian naval facility observed that "even potatoes are sometimes better protected nowadays than radioactive materials....' 18 There is concern that if security at these facilities is not improved, fissile materials may be diverted to unauthorized states or terrorist organizations.l9

To decrease the likelihood of theft, the United States is paying half the cost of constructing a safe and secure storage facility for excess plutonium and highly enriched uranium at the Mayak site near Chelyabinsk. Completion of the facility's first phase is expected in early 1999, with the final phase a year later. Only excess material from dismantled nuclear weapons is to be stored there. Other fissile materials will continue to be housed at a variety of military and civilian facilities. U.S. assistance for the facility, part of the Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, is expected to total at least $200 million.

Implementation of Two-Track Plutonium Disposition

DOE's selection of the two-track plutonium disposition plan calls for plutonium to be either burned in a reactor or immobilized with highly radioactive waste for direct disposal. However, numerous major decisions must be made before the two-track plan can be implemented. The location of facilities, the type of solidification to be conducted, and the specific reactors that would burn MOX fuel must all be determined. All those decisions must support the ultimate goal, to make the surplus plutonium at least as secure as the plutonium in unseparated commercial reactor fuel.

DOE has determined that at least eight metric tons of U.S. surplus plutonium is unsuitable for use as MOX fuel without extensive purification. A minimum of eight tons, therefore, will be immobilized, but the total quantity has yet to be determined. Former Secretary of Energy O'Leary contended that maintaining both reactor and immobilization options was necessary to ensure against possible difficulties with implementation of either one.


In this form of disposition, plutonium would be converted into an oxide form and embedded in glass or a ceramic. High level radioactive waste or other fission products would be mixed with the plutonium to create an intense radiation field and serve as a proliferation deterrent. Immobilization could be used for either pure or impure forms of plutonium.

Immobilization could occur in glass, a process known as vitrification, or in a ceramic compound. In a variation called "can-in-canister," plutonium would be suspended in a glass matrix inside a can, which in turn would be placed within a larger canister and surrounded by glass containing high levels of radioactive waste or other intense fission products. With each of these methods, the plutonium would be buried in a geologic repository pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

The Department of Energy estimates that between eight and 17 tons of the surplus plutonium will be immobilized, about one third of the total declared surplus. This amount, however, has not been finalized, and DOE reserves the option of immobilizing the entire surplus.

Vitrification of high-level waste is currently conducted by several countries, including the United States. Adding substantial quantities of plutonium to the process, however, has not been demonstrated on an industrial scale. All immobilization options will require additional research and development prior to implementation.

DOE has determined that its existing melters would not be suitable for vitrification, nor is there a suitable facility for ceramic immobilization. The Energy Department is contemplating either constructing an "adjunct" melter to the existing vitrification plant at the Savannah River Site's Defense Waste Processing Facility or building a new facility at Hanford. 20

The concentration of plutonium in glass or ceramic has raised certain safety concerns. High levels of dissolved plutonium risk criticality accidents, i.e., unplanned nuclear chain reactions. Depending on the technology utilized, studies indicate that immobilization can handle between 5 and 12 percent plutonium by weight. 21

Depending on the type of technology and whether new or existing facilities are used, immobilization could begin within 7 to 13 years, according to DOE.

The overall mission duration, including research and development, construction, and operation, is expected to be about 18 to 24 years.22

Mixed Oxide Fuel

The second preferred option is to convert surplus plutonium into mixed oxide fuel (MOX). MOX is a blend of uranium dioxide (UO2) and plutonium dioxide (PuO2) that produces a fuel suitable for use in nuclear reactors. This fuel would be used in existing commercial, domestic light water reactors on a once-through fuel cycle, in which the spent fuel would be disposed of without reprocessing.

It is technically straightforward to substitute MOX fuel for about one-third of the uranium fuel used in conventional light water reactors operating in the United States. 23 MOX fabricated from commercial spent fuel is considered technologically mature in Europe, but fabrication and use of MOX fuel has never been tested on a large scale with weapons-grade plutonium. There are no reactors in the United States currently using or licensed to burn MOX fuel. 24

The United States does not have an operational MOX fuel fabrication plant. Two MOX fabrication facilities were constructed at Hanford to supply the canceled Clinch River Breeder Reactor, but they were never operated and it is unlikely they could be reopened to comply with modern safety and environmental standards. 26 A dedicated MOX facility is being considered for either the Savannah River Site, Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, or Pantex.

About 70 percent, or 35 tons, of the plutonium declared surplus appears to be suitable for MOX fuel, which would contain from three to seven percent plutonium. After a once-through fuel cycle, the spent fuel would still contain a substantial amount of unburned plutonium, plus newly produced reactor-grade plutonium. 26

The quantity of plutonium destroyed in a reactor depends on the percentage of MOX used in the reactor core. With a one-third MOX fuel core containing four percent plutonium, for example, there would be a net gain of plutonium in the spent fuel in the entire core. 27 This increase in plutonium is caused by the dominant presence in the original fuel of U-238, about one percent of which is converted to plutonium during the reactor operation. On the other hand, in a reactor-core with 100 percent MOX fuel, more plutonium would be destroyed than created. (As noted previously, plutonium would also be created if the same reactor were operating entirely on conventional uranium fuel.)

The plutonium within the spent MOX fuel undergoes a shift in isotopic composition from weapons-grade to reactor-grade. This shift has been cited as one of the advantages of reactor based options. Reactor-grade plutonium, however, can still be used in a nuclear explosion. Yet, according to the National Academy of Sciences, which conducted an in depth study of plutonium disposition:

The main goal. . . is not so much to destroy the plutonium_by fissioning the plutonium atoms or transmuting them into other elements as to contaminate it with highly radioactive fission products, requiring difficult processing before it could be used in weapons.28

The Record of Decision states that selected nuclear power plants could begin accepting MOX fuel in seven to 13 years. Depending on the number of participating reactors, the percentage of MOX used in the fuel cores, and other factors, the time to complete the mission varies from 24 to 31 years. 29

The DOE would use existing commercial light water reactors to burn the MOX fuel. The operational lifespan of the reactors would be taken into consideration during the selection process. If partially completed reactors were to be completed by other parties, they would be considered for possible use in disposing of plutonium.30 It is believed, however, that current reactors are capable of fulfilling the mission.

Canadian Reactors

DOE retains the potential option of burning MOX in Canadian deuterium-uranium (CANDU) reactors as well. This option would dispose of U.S. and Russian plutonium in a parallel program, if agreements could be reached among the three countries. For the United States, MOX would be manufactured domestically at a DOE site and transported to Canada. Similarly, Russia would transport prefabricated MOX fuel to Canada. After a single cycle, the spent fuel would remain in Canada for disposal in accordance with Canadian waste polices. Canada has expressed an interest in hosting this program of plutonium disposition. 31

Use of MOX fuel in CANDU reactors has never been demonstrated on an industrial scale. It is thought that these reactors can handle 100 percent MOX fuel cores with plutonium loadings between 0.5 and 3.0 percent.32 An agreement was reached between the U.S. and Canada to test MOX fuel in CANDU reactors. The plan, however, was blocked in 1996 by domestic advocacy groups charging the shipment of MOX fuel could not occur until requisite environmental impact statements were completed.

The CANDU option could potentially begin 10 years after a decision to proceed were made. Estimates indicate it would take another 15 years for Canada to dispose of 50 tons of plutonium.33

Plutonium Conversion

Plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads is initially in the form of "pits," which are the fissile cores made of plutonium.34 For reasons of security the plutonium metal pits must be transformed into an oxide form before either disposal option can proceed. The United States does not currently have a pit disassembly and conversion facility capable of operating on an industrial scale. The preferred alternative is to construct such a facility at either Hanford, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Pantex, or the Savannah River Site.

Plutonium must be in a relatively pure form for use as MOX fuel.35 This requires separating plutonium from alloying materials found in the pits. Residual levels of the alloying element gallium in separated plutonium may complicate its use in MOX fuel. Gallium chemically attacks the metal zirconium, a major material in the metal tubes containing nuclear reactor fuel. A study by experts at Los Alamos National Laboratory found that "the presence of excessive gallium in spent MOX fuel could. . . cause [fuel tube] deterioration and hence possibly cause waste management problems."36

The only fully developed technology for plutonium separation is an aqueous process that results in large quantities of liquid radioactive wastes. A dry method, the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES), is being developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. ARIES is expected to significantly reduce the amount of radioactive waste in the separation process. ARIES is also expected to lower the quantity of gallium, which comprises about 1% of the plutonium pit, to approximately 200 parts per million. If the MOX fuel contained about 5% plutonium, the gallium concentration would average about 10 parts per million. This is thought to be an acceptable level, but it has not been conclusively determined.37

Spent Fuel Standard

Both of DOE's preferred disposal options_burning in reactors and immobilization for direct disposal_are intended to meet the "spent fuel standard." That is, to render surplus plutonium as inaccessible for weapons use as the much larger and growing quantity of unseparated reactor-grade plutonium existing in spent nuclear fuel from commercial power reactors.38 Reactor-grade plutonium is viewed as inefficient by weapon designers, although explosive devices can be made with it.

Plutonium is produced in varying quantities in virtually all operating nuclear reactors. Spent fuel from most commercial reactors consists of about 1% plutonium of various isotopes. Unlike weapons plutonium, however, plutonium in spent fuel is mixed with highly radioactive fission products that make it very dangerous to handle. Extracting the plutonium for use in nuclear explosives is still possible; the United States, Russia, and many other states have the technology to do so.

The spent fuel standard was initially advanced by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and adopted by the Department of Energy. NAS reasoned:

Options that left the weapons plutonium more accessible would mean that this material would continue to pose a unique safeguards problem indefinitely.

Conversely, the costs, complexities, risks, and delays of going beyond the spent fuel standard. . . would not offer substantial additional security benefits unless society were prepared to take the same approach with the global stock of civilian plutonium" (emphasis original) 39

The United States has no plans to exceed the spent fuel standard for plutonium disposal. Current U.S. policy considers the direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel to be the most proliferation-resistant option for plutonium produced by commercial reactors.

Disposal Cost Estimates

DOE's estimates for plutonium disposition using the two-track approach over a 20-year period indicate a total program cost of approximately $2.3 billion. This assumes that 35 tons of plutonium will be burned as MOX fuel, and the remaining 17 tons will be immobilized for direct disposal. The $2.3 billion cost, it should be noted, could change significantly. Various uncertainties provided by the DOE's Technical Summary Report indicate that costs could raise the total to $4.8 billion (see Table 1).


Table 1. DOE Cost Estimates for Two-Track Plutonium Disposition Using Three Commercial Reactors and Can-in-Canister Immobilization (millions of 1996 dollars)

Facility Investment
Increases 40
Net Life Cycle Cost
Pu Conversion 360 970 0 200 1,330-1,530
MOX Fabrication 360 820 (4l) -930 600 250-850
Reactor Operations 200 90 0 600 290-890
Immobilization 220 60 0 860 280-1,140
Repository 0 230 0 200 230-430
Total 1,140 2,170 -930 2,460 2,380-4,840 (42)
Source: DOE Technical Summary Report.

The Net Life Cycle Cost is calculated by adding the total investment and operating costs and subtracting estimated "fuel displacement credits." These credits consist of potential cost recoveries from participating utilities' reduction of conventional uranium fuel purchases.

The investment category refers to the near-term government funding requirements such as pre-operational, capital, and operating costs. Pre-operational and operating costs are generally incurred within the first 10 years and would require congressional funding. Capital costs are represented as "line items" which also would require congressional appropriation. Operating costs include staffing, maintenance, consumables, waste management, decontamination and decommissioning costs for performing the disposition mission.43

With plutonium conversion, DOE estimates that adverse variants in the separation process, such as gallium removal, could add an additional $200 million. Uncertainties with MOX fabrication that could affect program costs include modification, licensing and construction costs, use of European fuel fabrication capabilities, and fluctuations in the price of low-enriched uranium fuel (which could affect the anticipated "fuel displacement credits").

Reactor operations pose significant costs as well. The Record of Decision asserts, "The combined investment and net operating costs for MOX fuel are higher than for commercial uranium fuel; thus, the cost of MOX fuel cannot compete economically with low-enriched uranium fuel for LWR or natural uranium fuel for CANDU reactors."44 Given the greater expense of using MOX fuel and potential public opposition to utilities' handling plutonium in civilian reactors, companies that have expressed interest in burning MOX have done so on the assumption that the government would provide substantial subsidies. DOE estimates that total allocations to utilities could reach $500 million, which is counted as an uncertainty in the reactor category 45 DOE also budgeted an additional $100 million for delays in reactor modifications to accommodate MOX fuel.

Factors contributing to increases in immobilization include requirements for additional analyses and experiments and modifications to facility construction designs. Moreover, if it is determined that plutonium loadings in glass or ceramic are too high, the concentration of plutonium to be immobilized in each matrix will have to be reduced. This will require increasing plant capacity, which would raise the program's total cost.

Overall, the Record of Decision projected that burning MOX fuel would be more expensive than disposing of plutonium immobilized with high-level waste, and that "can-in-canister approaches are the most attractive variants for immobilization based on cost considerations."46 Similarly, Berkhout et al., concluded that, "blending plutonium into HLW [high-level waste] glass at existing or planned facilities is probably the least costly especially in the U.S., which has no established infrastructure for plutonium recycle...."47 Congress, however, may consider other factors associated with disposition than simply projected costs.

Besides domestic expenditures, the United States may decide to help finance disposition options in Russia. Like the United States, Russia does not have industrial-scale facilities capable of transforming plutonium into forms suitable for disposition or conversion into MOX fuel. Howard Canter, acting director of the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition at DOE, has asserted that Russia's disposition decision "will be driven by who is going to pay for it."48 Before any moves toward implementing disposition options are made, further agreements will need to be reached concerning Russian plutonium disposition policy.


The United States has sought to discourage other states from reprocessing their spent fuel, out of concern that separated plutonium could be diverted to weapons use. This policy was established by President Ford and codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-242). In 1993, President Clinton released his Nonproliferation and Arms Export Control Policy, which stated that "the United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium, and accordingly does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes."

The reasoning behind the policy was emphasized by President Clinton in a letter to Representative Stark: "The United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium. Its continued production is not justified on either economic or national security grounds, and its accumulation creates serious proliferation and security dangers."49

To head off criticism that the two-track option would lead to widespread reprocessing of spent fuel, the Record of Decision asserts, "The MOX fuel fabrication facility will serve only the limited mission of fabricating MOX fuel from plutonium declared surplus to U.S. defense needs, with shut-down and decontamination and decommissioning of the facility upon completion of this mission."50

Many arms control and environmental groups are concerned that use of MOX will be seen as encouragement for other states to continue reprocessing spent fuel. A memorandum from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to former Secretary of Energy O'Leary stated:

A U.S. decision to support the hybrid option would. . . undermine our efforts to discourage proliferation-prone closed fuel cycles [i.e., spent fuel reprocessing] not only in Russia but also in countries such as South Korea. If the hybrid option is chosen, these countries would hear only one message for the next 25 years: that plutonium use for generating commercial power is now being blessed by the United States. 5l

Various European firms experienced in MOX fuel fabrication have indicated an interest in providing their technology to the United States. Incorporation of European equipment would enable the U.S. to begin burning MOX fuel sooner than if only indigenous equipment is utilized. 52 Contracting with European firms, however, may be viewed by some as violating U.S. nonproliferation policy. Considering that those firms are state controlled enterprises that promote plutonium fuel cycles, contracting with them may be counter to the U.S. policy of not encouraging the use of plutonium in civilian reactors.

Similar concerns may be raised with an agreement to burn MOX in Canada. A DOE report asserts that "the CANDU alternative would mean encouraging the use of plutonium fuel in a foreign. . . state which is not currently using plutonium fuels."53 There may be public objection that this constitutes a reversal of U.S. nonproliferation policy.

A counter-argument is that U.S. rejection of plutonium fuel has diminished its nuclear nonproliferation influence throughout the world. Gregg Renkes, majority staff director of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, believes that the U.S. policy not to reprocess is anachronistic and detrimental to American interests. In a panel discussion before the American Nuclear Society he argued:

U.S. non-proliferation policy is not having an impact on nuclear programs in other nations.... The rest of the world will not turn away from plutonium as an energy source. Reprocessing is an international fact; the U.S. policy has simply not worked. What is worse is that reduced involvement in the technology reduces the impact the U.S. can have on international control regimes and non-proliferation technology development. 54

Russian Disposition Issues

Disposal of U.S. and Russian weapons-usable plutonium is expected to take place simultaneously. Both sides, however, have reached tentative agreements that the options pursued need not be identical. The Joint Plutonium Disposition Study concluded that "given the very different economic circumstances, nuclear infrastructures, and fuel cycle polices in the two countries, it is likely that the best approaches will be different in the two countries."55

Gaining Russian Cooperation

Despite the tentative Russian agreement to accept differing plutonium disposal programs, concerns have been raised that Russia would reject any U.S. plan to immobilize all its surplus plutonium without destruction, because the plutonium would still be retrievable in weapons-grade form. The U.S. delegation to the Joint Study, for example, argued in a letter to President Clinton:

There is much reason to think that the Russians will not eliminate their plutonium stockpiles at all if the United States implements only immobilization, leaving all U.S . plutonium weapons-grade_the Russians might then merely store their stockpile of weapons indefinitely, which is what we should most wish to avoid. 56

The letter also asserted that without the MOX option, the United States would:

lose any leverage we might have had over the conditions and safeguards accompanying the use of Russian plutonium in their reactors. It is critically important for the United States to play a leadership role in an international effort to implement the reactor option in Russia, and this will be extremely difficult to do if we reject the reactor option for our own plutonium."57

Secretary O'Leary stressed that the two-track approach to plutonium disposal would provide the needed flexibility and leverage to ensure Russia begins reducing its stockpile of excess weapons plutonium.68 Ensuring Russian cooperation, however, remains troublesome. To date, Russia has been reluctant to accommodate U.S. preferences in the handling and storage of plutonium. This has much to do with the different perspective each country has for the material. Unlike the United States, which regards plutonium as a liability,

Russia sees its stockpile as a national asset to be exploited for financial and energy benefits.

U.S.-Russian Agreements

Before any disposition agreement can take place, the United States will likely require additional assurances from Russia that weapons-grade plutonium is no longer being separated, and that verifiable safeguards protecting against diversion are in place. Howard Canter, acting director of DOE's Office of Fissile Material Disposition, has commented that unless a solid agreement with Russia is reached, "I don't think we'll do anything with our plutonium other than store it. . . because we'll never be able to sell up on the Hill spending a lot of money to do something with ours unilaterally."59 Russian officials are expected to insist on comparable verifiability arrangements at U.S. facilities as well.

A complicating factor is Russia's continued production of weapons-grade plutonium. Three reactors in Russia, two at Seversk (Tomsk-7) and one at Zeleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26), which generate electricity and heat for neighboring communities in Siberia, also produce weapons-grade plutonium.60 To prevent corrosion of the spent nuclear fuel discharged from those reactors, it must be reprocessed to separate the plutonium, uranium, and other elements. The separated plutonium is increasing Russia's stockpile of unsafeguarded, weapons-grade plutonium by about 1.5 tons each year.61 Vice President Gore and Prime Minister Chernomydrin signed an agreement June 23, 1994, requiring the shutdown of these reactors by 2000.

In January 1996 Secretary of Energy O'Leary and Russian Minister of Atomic Energy (Minatom) Mikhailov signed an agreement to convert the cores of the Russian plutonium production reactors rather than permanently shut them down. Conversion would allow use of fuel that produces only 1%-10% of the plutonium currently generated. The range reflects different fuel types and designs, e.g., use of highly enriched uranium versus low enriched uranium in the reactor. Moreover, the spent fuel would have higher concentrations of Pu-240, downgrading it to reactor grade. Finally, the spent fuel would not have to be reprocessed. 62 Progress toward implementing the agreement, however, has been slow.

The Department of Defense is requesting $41 million for FY1998 to assist in core conversion of these Russian reactors. Converting the reactor fuel cores would be considerably cheaper than replacing them with nuclear or fossil fuel power plants.63

Other U.S.-Russian agreements have been reached as well, but their efficacy remains uncertain. At the May 10, 1995, Moscow Summit, the two countries released a Joint Statement on the Transparency and Irreversibility of the Process of Reducing Nuclear Weapons. Among the agreed provisions were declarations not to use excess fissile material from dismantled nuclear weapons to fabricate components for new weapons; not to use newly produced fissile material in nuclear weapons; and to negotiate further agreements for reciprocal monitoring of stored excess fissile materials from dismantled nuclear warheads, which would allow each nation to send inspectors to the other's weapons facilities.

A U.S.-Russian agreement on plutonium disposition could include verifiable step-by-step measures to ensure that Russian disposal is taking place as agreed. A first step, for example, could be the verification of surplus stored plutonium noted above. A plutonium agreement could take the form of a treaty, or a global convention such as the proposed treaty to end production of nuclear weapons materials.64 Without such an agreement, each side would appear unlikely to move beyond the unverified indefinite storage currently taking place.

For Additional Reading

Berkhout, Frans et al. "Disposition of Separated Plutonium." Science & Global Security 3, 1992: 1-53.

Holdren, John et al. "Excess Weapons Plutonium: How to Reduce a Clear and Present Danger." Arms Control Today 26, 1997: 3-9.

Makhijani, Arjun and Annie Makhijani. Fissile Materials in a Glass, Darkly. Technical and Policy Aspects of the Disposition of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium. Takoma Park, MD: IEER Press, 1995.

National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control. Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994.

National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control. Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor Related Options. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995.

U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment. Dismantling the Bomb and Managing the Nuclear Materials, OTA-0-572. Washington, DC: GPO, 1993.

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Alternatives. Washington, DC: GPO, 1997.

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fissile Material Disposition. Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement 1-4. Washington, DC: GPO, 1996.

U.S.-Russian Steering Committee. Joint United States/Russian Plutonium Disposition Study. Washington, DC: Department of Energy Office of Fissile Material Disposition, 1996.


l National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994), 1.

2 U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Joint United States/Russian Plutonium Disposition Study. Executive Summary, September 1996, 1.

3 U.S. Department of Energy, Record of Decision for the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials. Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, January 14, 1997, l.

4 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 22.

5 See Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on European Affairs Hearing, Loose Nukes, Nuclear Smuggling, and the Fissile-Material Problem in Russia and the NIS (Sen. Hrg. 104-253), August 22 and 23, 1995; House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on International Security and Human Rights, Stemming the Plutonium Tide: Limiting the Accumulation of Excess Weapons-Usable Nuclear Materials, March 23, 1994; and Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs Hearing, Disposing of Plutonium in Russia (Sen. Hrg. 103-135), March 9, 1993.

6 U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium Disposition, DOE/MD-0003 Rev. 1, October 31, 1996, 4-14.

7 U.S. Department of Energy, FY1998 Congressional Budget Request, DOE/CR-0041, Vol. 1, February 1997, 532.

8 National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, 12.

9 The Nevada Test Site and Oak Ridge Laboratory were rejected as possible sites because DOE does not want to introduce plutonium to areas were it is not already stored. Rocky Flats was rejected because the preferred option is to remove all plutonium from Rocky Flats for storage at either Pantex or the Savannah River Site.

10 For details on restructuring proposals see Larry Parker, Electricity Restructuring: Comparison of S. 237, N.R. 656, H.R. 1230 and S. 722, CRS Report to Congress, 97-504 ENR Revised, May 20, 1997.

1l U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials. Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, DOE/EIS-0229 Vol. 1, December 1996, 1-2.

12 U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction, OTA-BP-ISC-115, December 1993, 173.

13 U.S. Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives, DOE/NN-0007, January 1997, 18.

14 U.S. Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials. Final Programmatic Environmental Statement. Summary, DOE/EIS-0229 Summary, December 1996, S-3. The Nuclear Weapons Council includes the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Deputy Secretary of Energy.

15 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Storage and Disposition, 1-3.

16 Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 22.

17 Ibid., 22.

18 Foreign Broadcast Information Service, "Fuel Rods Theft Blamed on Lax Naval Security," Izvestiya, May 12, 1995, 31, cited in The Nuclear Black Market, Global Organized Crime Project (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1996), 12.

19 See Graham Allison et al., Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russia Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material, CSIA Studies in International Security No. 12, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996).

20 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 20.

21 Department of Energy, Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report, 2-16.

22 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 12.

23 U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, Dismantling the Bomb and Managing the Nuclear Materials, OTA-0-572, 1993, 89.

24 Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 82

25 Office of Technology Assessment, Dismantling the Bomb, nl9, 89.

26 National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options, (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995), 35.

27 National Academy of Sciences, Reactor-Related Options, Table 6-1, 252.

28 National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition, 154.

29 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 12

30 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 20.

31 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 8.

32 National Academy of Sciences, Reactor-Related Options, 145.

33 Department of Energy, Arms Control Assessment, 100.

34 Modern thermonuclear warheads contain a "primary" and "secondary" stage in their detonation. Plutonium is present in the fissile pit of the primary. See Berkhout, et. al, "Disposition of Separated Plutonium," Science & Global Security Vol. 3, 1992, 4.

35 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, "Plutonium Conversion and Extraction," Briefing Slide, FY 1998 Budget Request: Investing for a Better Future, February 6, 1997.

36 James W. Toevs and Carl A. Beard, "Gallium in Weapons-Grade Plutonium and MOX Fuel Fabrication," Los Alamos National Laboratory document LA-UR-96-4764, reprinted in Science For Democratic Action 5:4 (February 1997), 10.

37 Josef Hebert, HLANL Warns About Element in Weapons Plutonium for Use in Reactors," Associated Press, January 29, 1997.

38 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Storage and Disposition, 1-5.

39 National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition, 34.

40 Cost uncertainties are illustrative of increases from stand-alone approaches to plutonium disposition, i.e., immobilizing or burning as MOX fuel the entire stockpile of surplus plutonium. The amounts listed assume maximum cost increases. DOE asserts that because each option in the two-track approach would process a lower amount of material than its stand alone counterpart, the magnitude of the cost uncertainties will be proportionally reduced.

41 Includes $140 million for fuel fabricated in Europe.

42 The high end assumes that all potential cost increases are realized to their maximum extent.

43 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report, 4-1.

44 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 12.

45 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report, Table 6-1, 6-3.

46 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 12.

47 Berkhout et al., 28.

48 "Plutonium Disposition Plans Unlikely to Proceed Without Agreement Between U.S., Russia," Spent Fuel, 3:141 (February 3, 1997), 3.

49 Letter from President Clinton to Representative Fortney Pete Stark, October 20, 1993.

50 Department of Energy, Record of Decision, 21.

51 Memorandum signed by ACDA Director John D. Holum to Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary, November 1, 1996.

52 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report, 6-3.

53 Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 106.

54 Gregg D. Renkes, "U.S. High Level Waste Management: Policy and the Reprocessing Option," Panel discussion at the American Nuclear Society, November 12, 1996.

55 Department of Energy Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Joint U.S./Russian Plutonium Disposition Study Executive Summary, September 1996, 2.

56 Letter to President Clinton from the United States Delegation of the U.S./Russian Independent Scientific Commission on Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, December 3, 1996.

57 Ibid.

58 DOE Announces Decision on the Storage and Disposition of Surplus Nuclear Weapons Materials," Department of Energy Press Release, January 14, 1997.

59 "U.S. Plutonium Use Plan Hinges on Russia," Reuters, January 27, 1997.

60 John P. Holdren et al., "Excess Weapons Plutonium: How to Reduce a Clear and Present Danger," Arms Control Today 26:9 (November/December 1996), 8.

61 Todd Perry, "Ending Russian Plutonium Production: Cooperative Efforts to Convert Military Reactors," The Nonproliferation Review 4:2 (Winter 1997), 1.

62 Ibid., 1.

63 Ibid., l.

64 See Carl E. Behrens and Warren H. Donnelly, International Agreement to Cut Off Production of Nuclear Weapons Material, CRS Report for Congress, 96-602 ENR, July 8, 1996.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list