Plan to Use Military Plutonium at Civilian Plants Stirs Debate Some Risk of Terrorism, but May Aid Russian Disposal

Article excerpt

Since the dawn of the thermonuclear age the United States government has invested huge amounts of effort and treasure to create tons of the most deadly substance on earth: plutonium.

But the end of the cold war has made thousands of nuclear weapons and their plutonium pits surplus material. Now Washington is proposing to destroy much of the US plutonium stockpile in a process that could be almost as complex and controversial as the material's production.

Simply leaving the estimated 50 tons of excess plutonium in storage might be the simplest solution to the problem, admit administration officials. Such a cache would be a tempting target for terrorists, however, and could raise Russian suspicions about future US nuclear plans. That might make Russia think twice about destroying its own excess plutonium. "We want to make sure the Russians dispose of their plutonium in a way we feel comfortable with," says an administration official. The Department of Energy's preferred alternative for plutonium, released yesterday, takes a two-pronged approach to disposal of the fissile material. About one-third of excess US plutonium would be fused into immobile glass or ceramic blocks - "vitrified" - under DOE plans. (In its natural state, plutonium is both radioactive and toxic. In some forms, it can be flammable.) These stable blocks would then be stored in a permanent repository somewhere, deep underground. The bulk of the plutonium, however, would be set aside to burn as fuel in conventional nuclear power plants. Such use would require the plutonium to be mixed with uranium, forming a fuel substance known as MOX. Reportedly, 16 civilian US utilities have expressed interest in receiving government-subsidized MOX fuel. Energy Department officials rejected dozens of other destruction approaches before deciding on their alternatives. Launching plutonium into the reaches of space, for instance, was deemed too risky. Environmental groups raised strong objections to the idea that plutonium be buried on the ocean floor. But the proposal to make use of plutonium in power reactors is sure to be controversial. The diversion of such weapons-usable material into the US civilian economy, even in a MOX form, is something that many nuclear activists have argued against for decades. "This is a very bad decision. It's time to close the door to plutonium in the commercial sector," argues Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. …

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