"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Fissile Material

Tritium Production Licenses Granted to Civilian Power Plants

November 2002

By Christine Kucia

Breaking the taboo of using civilian nuclear reactors to supply nuclear weapons materials, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved licenses September 24 and October 1 to allow tritium production at two Tennessee nuclear power plants.

Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is used in a thermonuclear weapon to boost its yield. It must be replenished regularly because it has a half-life of only 12 years. With the license, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractor, is authorized to insert tritium-producing burnable absorber rods into its Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors. The rods will be irradiated over each reactor’s 18-month fuel cycle and then shipped to the DOE-owned Savannah River Site in South Carolina so that the tritium can be extracted for use in nuclear weapons.

The NRC granted the first license amendment September 24, which will allow the Watts Bar reactor to produce tritium in up to 2,304 burnable absorber rods. The Watts Bar reactor is expected to begin tritium production in the fall of 2003. On October 1, the NRC announced the approval of a second tritium production license for the Sequoyah nuclear power plant. Sequoyah’s reactor units 1 and 2 will each irradiate up to 2,256 tritium-producing burnable absorber rods for one fuel cycle. Sequoyah’s two reactors will commence tritium production separately, with Unit 2 beginning irradiation in the fall of 2003 and Unit 1 a year later. The DOE halted all tritium production in 1988. Although the tritium extracted from dismantled weapons can be used to meet short-term needs, the department sought to identify a new production source before 2005 to provide enough tritium to maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile at START I levels, as required in a presidential directive. (See ACT, November/December 1998.) As a result of the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty, the tritium requirement might be lower in the future, but for now the DOE’s plans are based on START I numbers.

Following an extensive review of options, including building a linear accelerator or remodeling a mothballed nuclear power plant, in 1998 the DOE chose the less-costly option of using civilian light-water reactors for its production. The department designated the Watts Bar and Sequoyah facilities to produce tritium to help maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal. The license amendments for the two TVA-operated reactors allow the contractor to install and irradiate rods for the life of each power plant.

The United States has traditionally discouraged other countries from using their civilian nuclear capabilities for military purposes. Everet Beckner, deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, maintained in an October 25 interview that the U.S. tritium decision does not reflect a shift in policy because “the use of the TVA reactors to irradiate [rods] is to support the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” He emphasized that “the United States is not producing new nuclear weapons and has not since 1989.”

According to Beckner, the United States has no plans to re-examine options for tritium production. “This approach was judged to be the least costly and offered the greatest flexibility in meeting changing demands. With the Moscow Treaty in place, tritium demands in the coming years are expected to decline.”

Tritium Production Licenses Granted to Civilian Power Plants

Court Ruling Allows Plutonium Shipments to South Carolina

July/August 2002

By Alex Wagner

In mid-June, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by South Carolina to block the delivery of plutonium to the state’s Savannah River Site. The ruling allows the Energy Department to begin the shipments and prevents a delay in the implementation of a September 2000 agreement under which the United States and Russia each pledged to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from nuclear weapons.

An Energy Department spokesman said June 28 that the department would not have begun shipping the plutonium earlier than June 22 but that whether those shipments have started is classified. The plutonium is currently stored at a facility in Colorado that used to make fissile cores for nuclear weapons and is now scheduled to be dismantled. The material will be stored at Savannah River until workers at the site render it unusable for nuclear weapons, as called for by the 2000 agreement. (See ACT, July/August 2000.)

South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges (D) has opposed the shipments, concerned that the plutonium will remain in storage indefinitely because the technology to dispose of it is unproven. South Carolina officials have also complained that the Energy Department has not adequately studied the environmental impact of storing the plutonium at Savannah River.

Hodges filed a lawsuit in May asking the courts to block the shipments pending an environmental impact study, successfully delaying the plutonium’s delivery for more than a month. However, U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ruled June 13 that it would be unconstitutional to block the shipments and rejected the governor’s contention that the Energy Department had not conducted a satisfactory environmental impact assessment.

Hodges had previously declared he would do “whatever it takes” to block the plutonium’s delivery. But Currie opted not to issue a pre-emptive injunction to prevent Hodges from staging a roadblock to halt the shipments. “I don’t want to presume the governor will break the law,” she said.

Despite Currie’s ruling, Hodges issued an executive order June 14 prohibiting “any persons transporting plutonium” from entering South Carolina, citing “a legitimate threat of theft, diversion, or use of plutonium by terrorists” and noting the recent capture of a man suspected of plotting to detonate a radiological weapon in the United States. (See U.S. Announces It Uncovered ‘Dirty Bomb’ Plot.) The order also barred the transport of plutonium shipments on state roads and directed the state’s Department of Public Safety to enforce its terms.

In response, the Energy Department requested an injunction to block Hodges’ order, which Currie granted June 18. “It is a sad day for South Carolina when the governor…who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution must be ordered by a court to obey it,” Currie said.

At a June 18 press conference, Hodges acquiesced, saying that he would “respect the court’s order” but then appealed the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court subsequently rejected his request to halt the plutonium shipments, but it agreed to hold a hearing July 10 on Hodges’ contention that the Energy Department has not performed an adequate environmental impact study.

Court Ruling Allows Plutonium Shipments to South Carolina

U.S. Seeks Threat Reduction Funding From Allies

The Bush administration is pressing key allies to increase substantially their financial contributions to efforts to secure and downsize Russia’s vulnerable weapons of mass destruction complex.
Under what Washington terms the “10 Plus 10 Over 10” plan, the administration is seeking a total of $10 billion over 10 years from the other leading industrialized nations that, together with the United States, comprise the Group of Seven (G-7). Over those 10 years, the United States would also contribute $10 billion, roughly its current funding level for threat reduction programs.

President George W. Bush mentioned the initiative during a May 23 press briefing with German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, saying Russia would require extra funds to secure the warheads it removes from service under the new U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. (See U.S., Russia Sign Treaty Cutting Deployed Nuclear Forces.)

The United States has long sought increased financial contributions for threat reduction programs from its allies. In particular, Washington has looked to the G-7 nations to provide the bulk of the funding for Russia’s effort to implement the 2000 U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement, under which the two countries each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-origin plutonium.

So far, the United States’ G-7 partners have only pledged limited funds for the plutonium disposition initiative. The countries appear concerned about the size of the needed contribution and about the project’s political ramifications. For example, the German government has longstanding concerns about the proliferation threat posed by using plutonium for power generation, which is planned under the initiative. It is also wary of supporting nuclear power generation in another country while it is phasing out civil nuclear power at home.

Reports indicate that Washington is hoping for a joint statement on the proposal at the Group of Eight (G-7 plus Russia) summit planned for late June in the Kananaskis region of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The plan has reportedly received a mixed reception, with some states expressing reluctance because of the size of the financial commitment involved and because of concerns over the threat reduction programs’ ability to absorb substantial funding increases.

DOE, South Carolina Deadlocked Over Plutonium Shipments

May 2002

By Philipp C. Bleek

After months of negotiations, the Energy Department and South Carolina are at an impasse that threatens to stall U.S. implementation of an agreement with Russia on disposing of weapons-origin plutonium.

South Carolina’s Savannah River Site is due to receive the plutonium for storage until it can be rendered unusable for nuclear weapons. But state officials are worried that technological, political, and financial uncertainties could prevent the plutonium from ever leaving the state. These concerns have led Governor Jim Hodges (D) to stall shipments absent a binding contract submitted in a federal court or legislation specifying when the material will be removed and containing “an ironclad enforceability mechanism,” including “substantial monetary penalties for noncompliance.”

After the two sides failed to reach agreement following months of talks, in mid-April Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham notified both Congress and Hodges that he intends to begin shipments soon, irrespective of whether agreement is reached. By law, Abraham must give Congress 30-days’ notice before shipments begin.

In an April 15 letter informing Hodges of his decision, Abraham argued, “It is essential that we begin shipments of materials from Rocky Flats to South Carolina by approximately May 15, 2002, in order to meet the nation’s goal of closing that facility in 2006.” The plutonium is currently stored at Rocky Flats, a former plutonium pit production facility located in Colorado that is due to be fully dismantled.

Abraham also said that he supports legislation that would address Hodges’ concerns and suggested that Congress could approve such legislation within the 30-day window before shipments begin. However, it remains unclear whether Abraham would support legislation that meets Hodges’ precise terms.

In an April 21 editorial response in Spartanburg’s Herald-Journal, Hodges condemned the Energy Department’s “scare tactics and its stiff-arm approach” and said that absent an acceptable agreement, “I will do everything in my power” to keep the material out of South Carolina. Hodges has repeatedly threatened to deploy police to block shipments at the state’s border, and the state is preparing to bring suit against the Energy Department in a federal court.

Hodges has also expressed skepticism that Congress could approve legislation within the 30-day window. The issue now appears likely to be fought out in the courts.

The dispute relates to a September 2000 agreement under which Washington and Moscow agreed to each dispose of 34 tons of weapons-origin plutonium. Under the agreement, each side must seek to start operating their disposition facilities by 2007. The United States has made limited progress to date, while Russia’s program remains essentially stalled, in large part due to insufficient international financial contributions.

To dispose of the material, the Clinton administration decided to pursue a dual-track approach, whereby some of the plutonium would be converted into mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel and irradiated in nuclear power reactors and some of it would be “immobilized” in ceramic and glass and mixed with high-level radioactive waste. (See ACT, July/August 2000.) But after a review, the Bush administration decided last January to scrap the immobilization approach and focus its efforts on MOX. (See ACT, March 2002.)

That move raised concerns in South Carolina because MOX technology remains relatively unproven and because some of the material designated for disposal is not readily suitable for processing into MOX fuel. That contention was bolstered by an April 12 Nuclear Regulatory Commission memorandum that said the MOX program continues to be characterized by “substantial uncertainties.”

DOE, South Carolina Deadlocked Over Plutonium Shipments

U.S. to Continue Plutonium Disposition Pact With Russia

Philipp C. Bleek

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced January 23 that the Bush administration will continue implementing a U.S.-Russian agreement to make 34 metric tons of military plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. However, the administration intends to pursue only one of two methods that the Clinton administration had planned to use in disposing of the plutonium.

The White House had reportedly considered scrapping the two-year-old program altogether following a preliminary review last summer. (See ACT, September 2001.) But the administration’s skeptical stance toward threat reduction programs in the former Soviet Union has tempered in recent months, following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the completion of an administration review of the programs, which wrapped up in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

After years of internal debate, the Clinton administration had settled on a two-part approach to disposing of the plutonium, primarily because of technical uncertainties: it planned to convert 25.6 tons of the plutonium to mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and to immobilize another 8.4 tons in ceramic and glass. If either method proved not to be viable, the other would still be available to dispose of excess materials. The fact that some of the material is not readily suitable for conversion to MOX also factored into the Clinton administration’s decision.

Abraham indicated that the Bush administration now plans to dispose of almost all the plutonium by converting it into MOX fuel, which will be utilized in nuclear power reactors. The Energy Department will process 25.6 tons of the plutonium directly into MOX and subject another 6.4 tons to “enhanced purification” prior to converting it into nuclear fuel. But two tons of the material the Clinton administration had designated for immobilization are considered “very impure” and are not suitable for MOX. Instead of immobilizing this material, the Energy Department will process it for long-term storage and will identify another two tons of plutonium to convert to MOX fuel to meet the 34-tonne goal of the U.S.-Russian agreement.

Abraham emphasized that “reducing costs” was a key factor in the decision to abandon immobilization. The Energy Department expects the program to cost $3.8 billion over 20 years, a substantial decrease from a March 2001 department estimate of $6.6 billion for the full “dual-track” program. That earlier estimate projected the total cost of preparing the plutonium for disposition and making it into MOX at $4.6 billion, with immobilization costing another $1.5 billion and storage and support for both tracks adding about $500 million. It remains unclear why the department expects costs for MOX manufacturing to decrease dramatically, given the substantial increase in the amount of material to be converted. Energy Department officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

South Carolina Stall Continues

The decision to abandon immobilization formally, an approach the administration suspended last summer, continues to cause domestic complications. South Carolina’s governor and U.S. congressional representatives are concerned that, because some of the plutonium is not readily suitable for processing into MOX, the state’s Savannah River Site, the only complex currently due to receive plutonium under the disposition plan, will be required to store the material on a long-term basis. Officials have demanded that the Energy Department provide a clear timetable for shipments into and out of the state.

The Energy Department began consultations with state officials in January, but the two sides have not yet reached agreement. Language incorporated into the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization act requires the department to consult with South Carolina, to provide 30 days’ notice to Congress before shipping the plutonium to the Savannah River Site, and to submit to Congress by February 1 a comprehensive plan for plutonium disposition.

The Energy Department has not yet provided Congress with notice of planned plutonium shipments, but it has submitted its disposition plan. Dated February 15, the plan reiterates Energy Department assurances that all plutonium shipped to the Savannah River Site will subsequently be removed. However, it fails to provide information on the disposition of the plutonium that is not suitable for processing into MOX.

U.S., Russian Companies Tentatively Agree on 'HEU Deal'

Philipp C. Bleek

The companies implementing a 1993 nonproliferation program under which the United States buys uranium from Russian nuclear warheads for use in power reactors reached an agreement in February that will allow shipments to resume in March.

Under the U.S.-Russian Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement, the U.S. government committed to purchasing, over a 20-year period, 500 metric tons of weapons-origin uranium blended down to low-enriched uranium for use in commercial power reactors. The agreement is implemented by the Russian government-controlled Techsnabexport (Tenex) and the private, U.S.-based USEC, Inc., formerly the government-run United States Enrichment Corporation.

Known as the “HEU Deal,” the initiative is intended to make the Russian material unusable for nuclear weapons; employ Russian scientists who might otherwise be tempted to work for proliferant states or groups; and provide a much-needed revenue stream for Russia’s nuclear complex, which has struggled to pay personnel and maintain physical security. The deal also provides a significant percentage of the uranium needed to meet U.S. nuclear fuel needs.

The initiative had been effectively stalled this year because the agreement establishing prices for the HEU deal had expired at the end of 2001, and the companies could not agree on how much USEC would pay for Russian uranium under a new agreement. The terms of the previous contract allowed for its prices to be extended through 2002, but USEC had refused to place orders for this year’s shipments before a new contract had been concluded.

USEC and Tenex began negotiating new pricing terms in the spring of 1999. USEC sought to replace the existing terms, which specified a fixed uranium price that the company alleged was too high, with a more flexible pricing arrangement consisting of a three-year running average of the market price for uranium, with an additional discount. Moscow initially balked because the resulting price was significantly lower than the existing arrangement, but USEC sweetened the deal by agreeing to purchase a limited quantity of non-weapons-origin uranium fuel to provide Russia with additional revenue.

The Clinton administration approved that deal in its final week in the White House, but the incoming Bush administration withheld approval pending an internal review. (See ACT, March 2001.) The Bush administration authorized the conclusion of negotiations in November 2001, and on February 22 the State Department announced that USEC and Tenex had “concluded” a new agreement, whose terms are “subject to review and approval by the two governments.” Washington has begun that process, according to a spokesman.

The new pricing arrangement, which a source familiar with the deal said resembled USEC’s previous offer but does not include non-weapons-origin fuel, would enter into force in 2003. The two sides have agreed to an interim arrangement that maintains the previous price for 2002, the source indicated. Shipments of nuclear fuel will begin in March, according to the State Department and USEC.

Although the pricing agreement clears the way for shipments to begin, the governmental approval necessary for long-term implementation of the deal appears less than certain. Sources familiar with the issue indicated in late February that although approval by Washington and Moscow was possible within days or weeks, it could also be delayed substantially.

In an acrimonious exchange of letters with USEC head William Timbers, Energy Undersecretary Robert Card wrote January 8 that the administration “will not be able to provide approval of any long-term agreement until all other domestic issues have been resolved.”

Card was referring to the government’s concern that the United States is overly dependent on the HEU deal for nuclear fuel. To address that concern, the Department of Energy has been seeking an agreement with USEC that would require the company to maintain a domestic capacity to enrich uranium, prepare to construct a new enrichment facility, and allow the government to operate existing facilities if USEC ceases to do so.

In a January 10 response to Card, Timbers criticized the Energy Department’s demands, saying, “No U.S. corporation could subject itself to such unprecedented and unnecessary government authority and remain accountable to its shareholders or remain in business.”

Russian approval of the new contract terms appears uncertain as well, in part because the new contract will provide Moscow with considerably less revenue than the terms of the previous agreement. Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev wrote his U.S. counterpart January 15, calling USEC’s pricing proposals “unacceptable” and requesting government-to-government meetings “as soon as possible,” an overture that was apparently spurned by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

IAEA Physical Protection Meeting Stalls

Alex Wagner

Despite heightened concern since September 11 over the possibility of a terrorist attack on any of the world’s nuclear installations, a four-day International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna to expand an international treaty on protecting nuclear material adjourned without agreement December 7.

The 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material obligates its 69 member states to implement specific measures to protect civilian nuclear material during international transport. With U.S. support, the IAEA has been seeking since 1997 to draft an amendment to the convention that would extend the treaty’s reach to domestic nuclear protection.

In May, an IAEA group of experts tackled the issue, determining that the agency should draft an amendment that would expand the convention’s scope by requiring member states to pass legislation implementing IAEA guidelines on a range of issues, including how nuclear materials are used, stored, and transported and how nuclear materials and facilities can be protected from sabotage. The group recommended the amendment should also address the confidentiality of information on how facilities are protected and member states’ responsibilities for implementation.

Attended by 43 delegations and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), the December meeting sought to draft the amendment, taking into account the expert group’s recommendations. According to the IAEA, the conference “achieved a complete and detailed review of the scope of the potential amendments.” However, it was unable to conclude a draft amendment. Although a start has been made, there remain “many issues still to be resolved,” IAEA spokesman David Kyd said.

It appears that some EURATOM states—including Belgium and, to a lesser degree, France and the United Kingdom—are reluctant to amend the convention, according to an expert familiar with the negotiations. George Bunn, a former U.S. negotiator of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, suggested that this resistance stems from EURATOM’s historically antagonistic relationship with the IAEA and concern that states would be required to implement unnecessarily stringent safety and security measures at a heavy financial price. However, Bunn believes that EURATOM will “likely come on board, eventually.”

Bunn also noted that, in the past, Russia and China have not been enthusiastic about amending the convention but were willing to hide behind EURATOM’s opposition.

But a European official disagreed that particular EURATOM states were blocking the process. “France, Belgium, and the U.K. actively and constructively participated” in the December meeting and even elected a French chairperson, the official said, adding, “Belgium tabled a specific text for the amended convention, while the U.K. delegation made it very clear that it is also in favor of a revision.”

Kyd emphasized that IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is “eager” for the delegates to complete the amendment’s drafting so that a formal conference to amend the convention could be convened this summer. However, Kyd cautioned “whether this timetable can be met is unclear.”

Approval by a majority of the convention’s states-parties is required to convene the conference. Adoption of an amendment requires approval by two-thirds of states-parties present. Once approved, the amendment would enter into force for each county upon its ratification. The delegates agreed to reconvene March 11-15.

Putin Approves Spent-Fuel Import Legislation

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial set of laws July 11 allowing the import of spent nuclear fuel.

The most significant measure overrides an existing environmental ban on the import of foreign spent fuel for storage or disposal. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) A second law regulates spent-fuel import arrangements, and a third designates funds generated from imports for cleanup of radioactively contaminated sites. The Russian legislature approved the laws in June.

Putin also established a commission of government representatives to oversee spent-fuel imports and submitted a bill to the lower house of parliament that would make imports contingent on the group’s approval.

Russia hopes to generate substantial revenue by importing, storing, and eventually reprocessing up to 20,000 tons of foreign spent fuel, but critics maintain that there are significant environmental and proliferation risks in making Russia a global nuclear-waste dump.

Although demand for fuel-storage services appears high, at a July 11 press conference Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev said that “there are so far no potential clients in view.” Rumyantsev said Russia has begun raising the issue with foreign officials but emphasized that “this is a very long process” that would likely be drawn out for “several years.”

Most of the nuclear material in countries likely to be interested in costly spent-fuel storage originally came from the United States, and U.S. agreements with those countries give Washington veto power over transferring the material to third parties. The United States would therefore have to approve most spent-fuel shipments to Russia before they could proceed.

Before giving its consent to such transfers, the administration has emphasized that it would require Russia to meet proliferation, safety, and environmental standards and that it would want to reach an understanding concerning Russia’s controversial nuclear cooperation with Iran. Given the number and magnitude of disagreements between the two countries in these areas, it appears unlikely that Russia will be able to begin large-scale imports soon.

Administration May Abandon Plutonium Disposition Project

Philipp C. Bleek

The Bush administration is reportedly considering pulling out of a troubled U.S.-Russian project to make substantial quantities of military plutonium unusable for weapons purposes.

Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times reported August 21 that the National Security Council is likely to recommend abandoning the plutonium disposition program. A former Clinton administration official substantiated that account during an interview but emphasized that the issue remains undecided due, in large part, to resistance from both the Department of Energy and Congress. The Energy Department did not return calls seeking comment.

At an August 21 press briefing, State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said that an administration review of the project had “recently” concluded and that the administration plans to “consult with Congress prior to making any decisions.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in June 2000 to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-origin plutonium. Russia plans to convert its plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, which it will irradiate in nuclear reactors, while the United States plans to irradiate 25.5 tons of material and immobilize another 8.5 tons in ceramic and glass. (Washington also intends to immobilize about 18 additional tons of non-weapons-grade plutonium.)

The initiative’s substantial and rising cost is one key factor apparently driving the administration to reconsider the project. A March 2001 Energy Department analysis projects the total cost of implementing the U.S. half of the project at $6.6 billion, up from a previous estimate of approximately $4 billion. The more than 50 percent increase results largely from the irradiation component’s rising costs.

The Energy Department analysis projected the cost of the Russian half of the initiative at about $1.8 billion, only slightly above previous estimates. But another March 2001 analysis by a joint U.S.-Russian working group places that figure between $1.8 billion and $2.8 billion, the broad range due in large part to technical uncertainties.

Concerns about costs led the administration to suspend design work on a plutonium immobilization plant earlier this year. John Gordon, head of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, told a House Armed Services subcommittee in June that the suspension was required to spread program costs over a longer period of time. But Gordon assured lawmakers that, despite the suspension, the department “continues to pursue” both irradiation and immobilization.

The Energy Department has reassigned program staff involved in the immobilization project and is dismantling key infrastructure, signaling that the suspension is unlikely to be short term.

The situation has alarmed South Carolinian officials, who are concerned that the immobilization track’s suspension will require their state to store some of the processed material on a long-term basis. The state’s Savannah River nuclear site is due to begin processing plutonium to prepare it for both irradiation and immobilization in the coming months, but a substantial portion of the plutonium is not readily suitable for irradiation.

State officials have indicated they intend to hold the entire disposition program hostage until their concerns are addressed. South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges has repeatedly pledged to use all means at his disposal, including state police roadblocks, to prevent plutonium from entering the state without an agreement on long-term disposal plans. In an August 27 letter to the Energy Department, Hodges insisted on an agreement that is “legally binding” and includes a “definite timetable for shipping plutonium out of South Carolina after processing for disposition.”

At Hodges’ request, Representative John Spratt (D-SC) added language to the fiscal year 2002 defense authorization bill that bars shipments of plutonium to Savannah River absent an Energy Department report on plutonium disposal options. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) has added language to the Energy appropriations bill requiring the department to consult with South Carolina and to also prepare a report.

Energy Undersecretary Robert Card responded August 27, providing written assurances to Hodges that shipments would be postponed, provided “good faith discussions” begin “rapidly.” He added that the department believes agreement can be reached “before mid-October.” It remains unclear, however, how Energy officials intend to meet the state’s concerns without a near-term resumption of work on the immobilization track.

The Russian Program

Although the U.S. program has experienced difficulties, Russia’s disposition effort has essentially failed to get off the ground. When the initiative was launched, Washington agreed to contribute $200 million to the Russian program, pledged to seek an additional $200 million at a later time, and called on other developed countries to help finance the program. However, additional international financial pledges to date—including about $100 million from the United Kingdom, approximately $60 million from France, and roughly $34 million from Japan—are far from sufficient.

Participants at last year’s Group of Eight summit pledged to agree on an international financing plan for the project by this year’s summit in Genoa, Italy. But the Genoa summit, held July 20-22, appeared to yield no substantial progress, raising questions about the initiative’s viability.

Further dimming prospects for the project’s implementation, Siemens, a German technology conglomerate, announced in late August that it will begin to dismantle a plant it had offered to Russia for the disposition effort. In an interview, Helmut Rupar, Siemens’ director for the project, said that, because the Genoa summit failed to yield enough progress on financing the plant’s move to Russia, his company felt no further obligation to maintain the facility.

Building a new plant would likely cost far more than moving the already-constructed Siemens plant, substantially raising costs for the cash-strapped initiative. However, Rupar indicated that Russia would likely buy some of the plant’s components, once the facility is dismantled.

U.S. Finishes Packaging Kazakh Plutonium, Reviews Next Step

Philipp C. Bleek

In late June the United States and Kazakhstan completed a joint project to package spent fuel containing weapons-grade plutonium for permanent storage. Conclusion of the work represents a key milestone in a multi-year effort to inventory, secure, and permanently store material containing some three tons of plutonium in order to make it less susceptible to theft.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed in November 1997 to a three-part program to accurately inventory spent fuel produced by a Soviet-era BN-350 breeder reactor located in Aktau, Kazakhstan; seal the material in casks; and place it in permanent storage under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Under a parallel agreement signed in December 1999, the United States is also helping to shut down the breeder reactor permanently.

The packaged fissile material is currently stored in cooling ponds at the breeder-reactor complex on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Technicians have been working on-site since December 1998 to place the reactor’s used fuel assemblies into an estimated 2,800 one-ton, 13-foot long, welded steel canisters. Radioactive waste was placed in the canisters before they were sealed, resulting in a “heavy, hot, and highly radioactive package that is far more difficult to steal,” according to the Energy Department’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation office.

The project’s next step involves construction of a longer-term storage facility for the material, since the fuel canisters in which the plutonium is currently stored are only designed to maintain their integrity for five years while submerged in the cooling ponds. Scientists from the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory have proposed constructing a dry-silo facility that would be engineered to contain the material for 50 years. (A U.S. official indicated that after 50 years Kazakhstan, which is currently pressed for funds, is expected to be able to finance the construction of a more permanent disposition facility.)

After evaluating 10 possible locations for the dry-silo facility, a team of Argonne scientists recommended two long-term sites, one at the former Soviet nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk in northeastern Kazakhstan, near the Russian border, and the other in Aktau, near the reactor complex. Aktau’s coastal location in the vicinity of several nuclear weapons aspirants, notably Iran, served as a prime motivator for the joint threat reduction effort. As a result, early discussions on the issue of permanent storage focused on moving the material far inland, and the Kazakh government has announced that it would like the material to go to Semipalatinsk, the more costly of the two possibilities. But U.S. government officials emphasized that both storage site options remain on the table.

No agreement has yet been reached on the issue, and according to a U.S. official, the whole issue of short- and longer-term storage options “is now being re-evaluated.” However, because the plutonium can only be kept dry in the cooling ponds for five years, terminating the cooperative U.S.-Kazakh effort at this stage would make any long-term storage effort considerably more difficult, the official said.

Even among Clinton administration officials, who initiated the project, there was some disagreement regarding the necessity of constructing a costly longer-term disposition site at Semipalatinsk. Although the fissile material’s quantity, quality, and location put it at risk of diversion or even forcible seizure, the fact that it remains in spent fuel elements and is now protected by additional highly radioactive waste significantly reduces those risks. With the administration seeking substantial nuclear threat reduction budget cuts, Energy Department officials may ultimately decide that other projects—some involving unprotected, separated fissile materials—pose a greater short-term proliferation threat. (See ACT, April 2001 and May 2001.)


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