Jun 27, 2013

Is the US-Russia Accord on Plutonium Disposition in Jeopardy?

written by Michael Launer

Two recently published articles in respected outlets highlight potential difficulties in continuing the 2000 accord between the United States and Russia regarding disposition of plutonium that has been removed from nuclear weapons. Unmentioned is the fact that these discussions are being played out in the shadow of negotiations between the two countries over extension of the Nunn-Lugar agreement, which provides the umbrella under which all bilateral nonproliferation activities are conducted.

The May 2013 issue of Arms Control Today – which is published by the Arms Control Association – details the official Russian Federation response to possible cutbacks in US funding for construction of a MOX (mixed oxide) fuel facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina designed to down blend weapons grade material for use at nuclear power plants. The article can be found at the following URL:

http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_05/US-Revisits-Plutonium-Disposition-Plan

Aside from the obvious budget issues involved (including significant cost overruns) the ACA points to opposition in some circles to transferring plutonium from military to civilian hands. But these opponents fail to take into consideration the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent by the Department of Energy over the past two decades to secure nuclear material at civilian facilities inside Russia. Also ignored is the simple fact that weapons grade material similarly stored in the US is more secure than it would be in any other country.

The second article was posted 29 May 2013 on the IEEE Spectrum website. Entitled “Restructuring and Retrenchment in Nuclear Fuels,” it can be found at the following URL:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/nuclear/restructuring-and-retrenchment-in-nuclear-fuels/?utm_source=energywise&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=060513

The author of this article cites predominantly economic factors that may lead to mothballing the facility before it is even completed. Primary among these factors is the increased anti-nuclear power sentiment precipitated by the Fukushima disaster: if power plants worldwide are shut down and new build severely curtailed, there will be little market for the MOX fuel. Worldwide demand for reactor fuel has already dropped 10% in the past two years, and Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear industry, if actually implemented, would further dampen demand.

In a surprising statement, the claim is made that if uranium prices decline in the long term “there would be no point in completing the plant and then making the MOX, as opposed to just dumping the plutonium, if uranium will be dirt-cheap as far ahead as one can see.” [italics added] Exactly how plutonium can be “dumped” is unclear – unless the author considers glassification and long term storage in some yet-to-be-considered geological repository a form of dumping.

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