IEER Recommendations on Plutonium Management

by Arjun Makhijani

Endnotes are found at the bottom of this page.
Some of the terms used in this article are defined in IEER's on-line glossary.

Disposition of world-wide plutonium stockpiles is an urgent problem. While many speak of reprocessing and using plutonium to fuel nuclear reactors as "recycling," IEER believes that vitrification, and not reprocessing, is the best method of plutonium disposition. Russia and the U.S. are now dismantling thousands of nuclear warheads, but have not yet implemented an effective strategy for the disposition of surplus military plutonium. Meanwhile, France, Britain, Japan, Russia, and India add to the stockpiles by continuing to produce new stocks of weapons-usable commercial plutonium by reprocessing commercial reactor spent fuel (extracting plutonium and uranium from fuel irradiated in nuclear reactors). While the U.S. is not reprocessing for military or commercial reasons, it has nonetheless succumbed to pressures to continue the flow of money into military nuclear installations. In February 1996, it restarted a military reprocessing plant at the Savannah River Site, citing the need for "environmental management," although reprocessing is the worst option for plutonium disposition from the point of view of protecting environmental, public, and worker health.1

The many economic, technical, environmental, and security arguments against plutonium use have not convinced those who fervently believe that plutonium is an energy treasure that will play a long-term role in the world's energy economy. Moreover, these plutonium advocates are in positions of considerable influence in key countries, including Russia, France, Japan, Britain, and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

Bridging the U.S.-Russian Gap on Plutonium

The U.S. and Russian leaders have fundamental disagreements on whether plutonium is an asset or a liability. The Russian government's view is that plutonium represents an important energy resource and an economic treasure, while many U.S. leaders like Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary and Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John H. Gibbons see plutonium excess to military requirements as a liability. Studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1994 and 1995 concluded that there would be net costs to using plutonium in reactors, even after the revenues from the sale of electricity were taken into account. These net costs would be of the same order of magnitude as the cost of plutonium vitrification. Of course, there are institutions in the United States, such as the American Nuclear Society, whose beliefs on plutonium are closer to the prevailing Russian view. Further, there is still a strong sentiment in the United States, including in the Department of Energy, to use plutonium as mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel (MOX fuel) in existing power reactors. Similar sentiments have also been expressed by Russian leaders. (See IEER's commentary and analysis on this issue.)

The issue of plutonium's long-term worth cannot be resolved today. But we can separate the short- and medium-term issues from the long-term energy issues. Most independent studies that have carefully taken the costs of reprocessing and fuel fabrication into account have concluded that because of the abundance of cheap uranium, plutonium is not now an economical fuel and will not be for the foreseeable future (see main article). IEER shares this conclusion. Taking into account the reality of cheap uranium and urgent security concerns, we believe that there can be a basic agreement to put plutonium into non-weapons-usable form today, while creating a mechanism to use it as an energy source in the long-term, should the economics and non-proliferation conditions change enough to warrant it.

We have two principal recommendations regarding plutonium in the short- and medium-term:

  • Excess military plutonium and all commercial plutonium should be vitrified in a manner that would make it very difficult to steal and very hard for non-governmental parties to re-extract and make into nuclear weapons. "Vitrification" would dilute plutonium with large quantities of molten glass (and other materials) to make glass logs. The containers of the glass logs (or the logs themselves) should be made very radioactive so that they would be difficult to steal.
  • All reprocessing plants that produce weapons-usable materials, including military and commercial reprocessing plants, should be closed in order to stop the increase in stocks of weapons-usable materials.

The U.S. and Russian governments can address the energy issues relating to fissile materials by creating mechanisms that would respond to the concerns of those who believe that plutonium could be a very valuable energy resource in the long-term. We recommend two complementary actions:

  • The creation of an international reserve of uranium fuel for power reactors as a means of assuring its long-term, reasonably priced supply. This reserve would be created from surplus military highly enriched uranium.
  • Financial guarantees for re-extraction of plutonium from a vitrified state, should an impartial panel ever decide that it is an economical fuel for power generation. This way, the Russian and other governments can preserve the option of using plutonium in the future, should it become economical.

These steps should assuage concerns regarding nuclear reactor fuel supply and allow vitrification to proceed in the short-term. The funds for these activities would come from the U.S. government, European Community countries, and Japan.

U.S.-Russian Collaboration

There are some encouraging signs for the pursuit of sound non-proliferation policies in Russia and the United States. The U.S. is not reprocessing commercial spent fuel (though it is operating a military reprocessing plant) and has begun hot tests on its high-level waste vitrification plants at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and at West Valley in New York state. Russia has considerably more experience in high-level radioactive waste vitrification than the United States, with an operating plant at Chelyabinsk-65. Russia is also conducting plutonium vitrification experiments on plutonium residues unsuitable for use as fuel at the Radium Institute in St. Petersburg. The advanced work in Russia along with ongoing research in the U.S. laboratories, such as facilities at the Savannah River Site and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, can provide the basis for active, mutually-rewarding cooperation on one of the most urgent issues of our time.

Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin should decide now to vitrify plutonium to prevent its diversion into the black market. As a first step, Russia and the United States should establish two joint vitrification pilot plants-one in each country-as part of technical collaboration program on fissile materials security. The U.S. and Russia should agree to shut down their reprocessing plants and not to use plutonium in reactors. They could then work together to persuade other countries to shut down their reprocessing plants.

Only a U.S.-Russian partnership in weapons-usable materials management will prompt other governments to pursue proliferation-resistant and environmentally sound management options, and to shift employment into these areas, away from problem technologies like reprocessing. The potential diversion of plutonium from either military or commercial stocks is a global problem requiring a global solution.

Vitrification of Plutonium

In order to assure that plutonium will not be used to make nuclear weapons, it is necessary to put it into a non-weapons-usable form. One way of accomplishing this is to mix it with a large quantity of molten glass and pour it into metal containers to form glass logs. This process is called vitrification. Plutonium concentration in the glass could range from a fraction of one percent to several percent. A low concentration makes it harder to steal or re-extract the plutonium, but increases the number of glass logs requiring storage. Re-extraction of plutonium from glass can be accomplished without very complex processing.

In order to make the plutonium more difficult to recover, and hence more proliferation-resistant, it can be mixed with highly radioactive fission products, such as cesium-137 or mixed fission products from previous reprocessing plant operations. Such gamma-emitting fission products would provide a lethal radiation dose to anyone trying to steal a glass log containing plutonium. However, this approach would also make it more expensive to re-extract the plutonium, should that be required in the future. A middle-ground solution would be to vitrify plutonium with other elements like thorium-232 and put the mixture in a container that has been made highly radioactive by the use of cesium-137 to make it esistant to theft.

See IEER's report, Fissile Materials in a Glass Darkly, which discusses disposition options for surplus weapons plutonium. See also Science for Democratic Action Vol. 5 No. 1 for more about reprocessing and vitrification.

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  1. See Noah Sachs, Risky Relapse into Reprocessing (Takoma Park, Maryland: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Jan. 1996).

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Last updated: February, 1997