Bad science: Russian objections to US plutonium proposal not a reason to keep MOX

, Washington representative and senior analyst | April 21, 2016, 11:19 am EDT
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President Putin recently made some alarming statements about U.S. plans to cancel the current American approach to disposing of excess plutonium. His comments are important because the United States and Russia have an agreement to each dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium generated by the two countries’ nuclear weapons programs. The Russian president suggested that the approach proposed by the Obama administration, to dilute the plutonium and dispose of it in a geological repository, was unsatisfactory and could damage U.S.-Russian relations.

A Russian spokesman elaborated on Russia’s objections to the proposed “dilute and dispose” approach, arguing that the “only way to irreversibly turn plutonium into a material not usable in a nuclear weapon is by changing its isotope composition. Any chemical method is reversible.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, the lead proponent of the MOX program

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lead proponent of the MOX program

U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who oppose the Obama administration’s new plan because of their staunch support for the old plan–to complete construction of an enormously expensive factory in their state to incorporate the plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel — seized on Russia’s objections as a reason to stick with the MOX approach.

However, the argument provided by the Russians to oppose the new plan does not hold up to scrutiny. As explained by my colleague Dr. Edwin Lyman and Dr. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University in this memo, changing the isotopic composition of the plutonium would not render either Russia or the United States incapable of using the material in nuclear weapons should they decide to do so. Other factors, including prompt burial in an underground repository and international monitoring, will be far more important to keeping us all safe.

Nevertheless, the memo describes a relatively straightforward solution to Russia’s concern: mixing the U.S. plutonium with reactor-grade plutonium imported from the United Kingdom or Japan, which both also happen to be looking for a disposal path for their excess plutonium.

While more complicated that simple dilution and disposal, this option would still be cheaper than the MOX plan. So supporters of the MOX program shouldn’t use this Russian red herring as a reason to keep their pork project alive.

See the memo for a more detailed explanation, and a wealth of footnotes. For an alternative use for the partially completed MOX plant in South Carolina, see our proposal to turn it into a a nuclear security training center of excellence.

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  • Aleksei Kirillov

    For every 1 ton weapon-grade plutonium you should take at least 5 tons of reactor-grade to make resulting solution unusable in simple implosion device. Will GB provide ~160 metric tons of reactor-grade plutonium? Do they have it at all?

    Moreover. US is advanced nuclear state and able to build and put in mass production advanced implosion devices, which can use GB “reactor-grade” plutonium (with low burnouts) as is.
    To make it unusable, we need higher burnout and more Pu-240/242 in solution, which is achievable only via MOX.

    (To be correct: it’s almost impossible to make plutonium “non-weapon” for such state as USA or Russia. But high contamination by 240/242/244 isotopes in plutonium makes it “practically non-weapon”).

    And of course, ANY chemical solution is pure cheating and breaking the treaty. When you are producing plutonium with irradiated fuel on radio-chemical plant, you’re dealing almost with worst mix of toxic and extremely radioactive chemicals… And it’s normal part of the process.
    It’s well proved: it’s possible to get plutonium from any chemical solution relatively cheap, so whatever chemicals are used, current USA proposal is just to move plutonium from one site to another.

  • Aleksei Kirillov

    …also, as Russian i can say that we don’t really care how USA will utilize their plutonium.

    If USA needs their nuclear stockpiles, it’s OK: treaty can be just braked. Claim it officially, free yourself and us from obligations, mix your plutonium with cyanide or chocolate or whatever, it will be your right. Use it.

    Or, if producing MOX in US and/or burning MOX in US reactors is unacceptable for some reason, let’s invent another way:
    – provide plutonium under international control to France (they has both MOX production and all reactor infrastructure to burn it and make unusable in weapons).
    – or provide your Pu to Russia: we did build BN-800 especially to burn weapon plutonium. We will take it even without payments, in our energy strategy it’s just fuel.
    – or let’s find another way to do it. Let’s fire to the Sun!

    But current proposals… Such silly cheating isn’t acceptable.

  • nikkkom

    I take it a proposal to ship Pu to France and manufacture MOX in EXISTING French MOX plant, then use it up in power reactors, was never looked at – because it is way too cheap? Bureaucrats simply MUST spend billions of dollars on some idiotic project?