The Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué Statement on Separated Plutonium Is a Step Backward

, senior scientist | March 25, 2014, 3:14 pm EDT
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The communiqués issued at the previous two Nuclear Security Summits said almost nothing about the dangers of separated plutonium. That was a problem. The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit communiqué does say something about plutonium—but the world would have been better off if it had remained silent on the issue.

The communiqué statement, although vague, promulgates the false and very dangerous notion that MOX fuel, a mixture of plutonium and uranium, is much less of a security threat than pure plutonium:

“Furthermore, a considerable amount of HEU has been down-blended to low-enriched uranium (LEU) and separated plutonium converted to mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. We encourage States to minimize their stocks of HEU and to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, both as consistent with national requirements.”

The problem is that, contrary to the impression this statement gives, converting plutonium into MOX would offer little barrier to theft and subsequent use in producing nuclear weapons.  One MOX fuel assembly contains many bombs’ worth of plutonium, and can be rapidly disassembled, if necessary, to facilitate theft.

The Summit statement implies that converting separated plutonium to MOX fuel has a comparable security benefit to down-blending highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium. Nothing could be further from the truth. To reverse HEU downblending would require access to uranium enrichment technology—something that is generally out of reach for sub-national groups. To reverse blending of plutonium with uranium would only require a modest capability for chemical processing that could be accomplished in a small-scale and easily concealable glovebox facility.

One of the chief beneficiaries of the communiqué statement is Japan. Japan is facing increased criticism from its neighbors, like China, for its plans to increase its already substantial stockpile of separated plutonium by starting up the Rokkasho reprocessing plant.  This plan is especially problematic given the collapse of Japan’s strategy for using plutonium as MOX fuel in its currently shuttered fleet of nuclear power plants. Since Japan is building a MOX fuel fabrication plant adjacent to Rokkasho, the communiqué statement gives Japan cover for separating additional plutonium provided that it fabricates it into MOX fuel, even if the fuel is stored for decades before it is irradiated in nuclear reactors.

UCS has been working to try to prevent an effort by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to downgrade the security requirements for MOX fuel and other forms of plutonium diluted with other materials. The communiqué statement will set back that and other efforts to ensure adequate controls over all materials that are useful to terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

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  • Carl Page

    Ignoring climate change gives you no context for comparing the risks of nuclear power vs its alternatives, coal, oil, and gas.

    The alternatives, to nuclear power, Coal and Oil alone kill 3 million people a year according to WHO from the direct effects of pollution. Serious climate scientists such as James Hansen feel that we putting billions of people at risk, as well as threatening to drive more than half of species extinct, by allowing CO2 to build up due to a failure to produce carbon free nuclear energy.

    Freeman Dyson is right to observe that the regulatory capture of the NRC and DOE create an “innovation free zone” for the existing vendors to sell their wares, or to sell the coal plants they also make. Without innovation, inherently safe designs have not been pursued beyond the professor/dreamer stage. Although it is correct to point out that the molten salt reactor tested in the 60’s was verified to be walk-away power failure meltdown proof.

    While it is a good idea to try to prevent a terrorist with a nuclear bomb, it pales in comparison to stopping the unfolding disaster of climate change which has already done more damage to American and European cities than a small nuclear bomb would do. But climate change damage isn’t leveling off — it is accelerating and the worst is yet to come. Nuclear power is way safer than coal, which needs to be shut down today. Your implicit support for coal and oil make people in the future consider you akin to a terrorist. People 20 years from now will blame you for the rising seas and reduced food supply, and the the climate change cause political instability that may in fact cause nuclear weapons to get used.

    I’m a big advocate of solar and wind power too, and have put a lot of effort in to making those things real. But we need to end coal today and make enough energy cheap enough to profitably reverse combustion, taking CO2 out of the environment, while feeding and providing air conditioning to 11 billion people on half as much topsoil. That’s reality 40 years from now. We can’t do it with the nuclear hand tied behind our back.

  • Hank

    The funding of science in government has been infiltrated by political appointees, and the Managers setting the tone in the era of perpetual war budgets have been resisting the calls for better monitoring and tighter inspections of critical facilities. Is Strontium-90 safer for us when the allowable levels in milk are increased? Why are fracking and Oil-rig drilling operations allowed with a mile of a nuclear repository in Carlsbad?
    I haven’t heard about the safe standards for plutonium inhalation for humans yet, but I know all the people living downwind from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant would like to know exactly these events happen so they can prepare. –Why isn’t the UCS raising these issues of the need to transport tons of U.S. waste away from the earthquakes caused by drilling nearby. That this situation is allowed to exist is insanity! How can a group of trained scientists ask me in a newsletter for donations while tons of radioactive water continue be released from Japan,with levels equal to 3 years ago. I want to hear something from UCS and I get zero.
    –This is a sad time for science and President Obama is sacrificing NASA and putting a knife to the engineering graduates whose prospects have been postponed. Americans health concerns are postponed. The urgency to remove and relocate dangerous radioactive wastes–can this also be postponed?