Swords Into Plowshares — An Update

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article in favor of proposed United States – Russian agreements to use weapons plutonium in power reactors. "Burning up" plutonium in a reactor is the simplest solution to the proliferation and safeguards problems associated with cold war stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium.

Some progress has been made in the last year and I propose to update you about these developments. The slow pace of progress is disturbing as the opportunity to dispose of the Russian stockpiles may weaken if the successor to Boris Yeltsin takes a more belligerent posture toward the United States.

Last September, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin made commitments to dispose of 50 tons of plutonium from weapons stockpiles. The fine print that has not been worked out is the financing of the Russian effort. The United States has committed $200 million for the startup of the Russian program.

However, Congress made payments contingent on Russian progress. The Russians respond that progress depends upon satisfactory long-term assurances of funding from the United States. [Hopefully, the money is not the issue for us. If the Russians made significant progress toward the actual disposal of stockpiles, billions of dollars would be cost effective compared to the costs of defending against the weapons.]

The Department of Energy (DOE) contracted in March with a consortium to develop the capability in the United States to incorporate plutonium into reactor fuel. The fuel after blending is referred to as mixed oxide fuel or MOX. Consortium members include Duke Engineering & Services, Cogema Inc., Stone and Webster, Framatome Cogema Fuels, Belgonucleaire and Nuclear Fuel Services. MOX fuel is a proven technology and has been in use in Europe for many years. Belgium has a facility providing much of the world's current MOX fuel capability. The commitment of $130 million to the project is encouraging. The projected pace is not encouraging. The consortium is to provide a licensable design to DOE in 2002. Only then will DOE make a decision to construct a facility.

MOX derived from weapons plutonium is not directly competitive with uranium and would need to be subsidized. A National Academy of Sciences report in 1996 noted that fabricating MOX fuel is more expensive than fabricating uranium fuel of comparable energy value. This is true even if the plutonium is free. In part, the extra cost is caused by the need for weapons grade MOX fabrication to be more automated for safety and security reasons. However, conversion to MOX fuel makes the plutonium more proliferation resistant and thus saves DOE money for security and safeguards of stockpiles.

Duke Energy and Virginia Power are members of the consortium and plan to use MOX fuel in units that they operate. The Duke plants are at the Catawba and McGuire nuclear stations. Virginia Power would use the MOX fuel at North Anna. Each of the sites has two units bringing the total to six units.

The forming of consortiums and the commitment of funds is encouraging. However, ten years after the end of the cold war, DOE will still be deciding whether to actually construct a facility. The events of the last year indicate how little predictability there is in the post cold war era. Progress must be made rapidly or this opportunity to increase security (decrease insecurity?) will be lost and the swords may be brandished even if not used. I am still hoping for plowshares.

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