Administration May Abandon Plutonium Disposition Project
Bleek, Philipp C., Arms Control Today
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 resuits 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. …