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
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
The Department of Energy's preferred alternative for plutonium,
released yesterday, takes a two-pronged approach to disposal of the
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
"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. …