US-Russia Nuclear Security Cooperation

Plutonium Disposition: Non- Proliferation or Industry Welfare?

Thomas Sköld
European Security Review,
April 2001

The EU is about to participate in an international effort to finance a non-proliferation measure in Russia that aims to render excess nuclear weapons plutonium less attractive for bomb-making purposes. Russia plans to process the plutonium into nuclear fuel and recycle it in power reactors, but lacks the funds. While the plutonium disposition goal is welcomed by the nonproliferation community, the selected programme is criticised by many for being counterproductive to nonproliferation goals and merely serving nuclear industry interests.

The EU and Plutonium Disposition

In accordance with the EU Common Strategy on Russia, the Council adopted a Joint Action in December 1999 establishing a Cooperation Programme for Non-proliferation and Disarmament in Russia. The initiative put the Commission in charge of managing 8 900 000 Euros (for 1999 and 2000) to support a chemical weapons destruction project in Gorny as well as a set of scientific studies on Russian plutonium disposition. These studies, involving the Commission Joint Research Centre and four European companies with plutonium-reprocessing technology1, address the feasibility of burning weapons-grade plutonium in Russian nuclear reactors.

The non-proliferation goal of plutonium disposition is to make weapons-grade plutonium less attractive for bomb making by modifying it so that its quality is similar to that of spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive and hard to handle.2 One way to reach this 'spent fuel standard' is to process the plutonium into nuclear fuel by mixing it with uranium, which results in Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX), and burning it in power reactors. Russia prefers the MOX option as it views its plutonium as a valuable energy resource. It is also the option preferred by the western nuclear industry, which would inevitably play an instrumental part in building up the infrastructure required to process Russia's plutonium.

The EU Commission, faced with industry pressure, has held discussions with Minatom (the Russian Nuclear Energy Ministry) on how their excess weapons plutonium could be used in reactors since the early 1990s. It was finally decided at the G8 Summit in Okinawa last year that the EU should support a plutonium disposition programme proposed by Russia and the United States, which is based on MOX fabrication. European support for the scheme was further rallied in a recent series of gatherings including the Plutonium 2000 conference held in Brussels last October, the joint Commission-EU Presidency conferences on non-proliferation and disarmament efforts on 8-9 March and, most recently, at a meeting of the G8 working group on plutonium disposition held on 4-5 April in Berlin. The extent of the EU’s financial contribution to this programme will be clarified in the financing plan to be agreed by the next G8 meeting in Genoa in June.

Concerns About MOX

Opponents to MOX say it is counter-productive from a non-proliferation standpoint and maintain that it will actually increase rather than decrease the risk that plutonium ends up in a bomb. The main argument against MOX is that it introduces plutonium into the civil nuclear fuel cycle, which increases the risk of the diversion of the plutonium while it is being fabricated into fuel and transported around the world. Indeed, US non-proliferation policy discourages the commercial use of plutonium throughout the world for exactly this reason. Some say that the plutonium will be even less protected than it is now, under military control. According to Wilhelm Gmelin, head of Safeguards at Euratom, a MOX fabrication plant will need more safeguarding than if the plutonium was to remain in storage.3

A second proliferation concern is that Russia has clearly stated its intent to recycle military plutonium perpetually in its civilian nuclear fuel cycle and to export plutonium-based fuel. The ‘policy paradox’ of this project is that by recycling the plutonium in the commercial fuel cycle, the plutonium would not stay in the desired form of spent fuel after being burnt. Rather, it would be separated from the spent fuel – thus being ready for weapons use – before it is processed once again into MOX. Thus, the Russian intention to recycle military plutonium ultimately undermines any non-proliferation benefits of the MOX option.

There are also considerable economic obstacles to implementing the MOX plan. The estimated cost of the project has continued to escalate, and since the unprofitability of the scheme is generally acknowledged, it has not attracted any private funding. Moreover, even the initial government funding for the project remains uncertain. NuclearFuel, a nuclear industry magazine, noted that ‘there is broad scepticism that funding can be squeezed from the government budgets in the name of disarmament’4.

In a letter delivered to the Okinawa G8 Summit, 72 European, Asian and North American NGOs protested against the proposed US-Russia MOX programme, citing major technical safety concerns, health, and environmental risks posed by the poor state of Russia’s reactors.5 Moreover, an OECD report on MOX points to other potential obstacles in its conclusion that ‘a number of complex and interrelated non-technical factors such as … non-proliferation, public acceptability, economics, environmental impact and infrastructure would inevitably play a central role in thoroughly developing, implementing and completing the technical options’.6

Ignoring Alternatives

Opponents of MOX favour what they insist is a cheaper, faster and safer alternative: vitrification. This involves blending weapons-grade plutonium with high-level radioactive waste and storing it in glass. Vitrification is already used in France and the UK for radioactive waste storage and would achieve the ‘spent fuel standard’ goal with fewer processing steps than the MOX option. It would be less costly to implement and avoids the numerous nuclear safety concerns related to the burning of weapons-grade plutonium in civil reactors. Finally, the vitrification method reduces the risks of proliferation through theft since it does not require, as MOX does, that plutonium be processed in various facilities or be transported around the world.

Despite strong evidence that vitrification brings more non-proliferation benefits and fewer implementation obstacles, it has received little attention. Before the EU decides to finance the risky MOX non-proliferation measure for the wrong reasons, it should conduct a comprehensive and independent assessment of the best methods to achieve the plutonium disposition policy goals.