U.S. to Continue Plutonium Disposition Pact with Russia

Article excerpt

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 twopart 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. …