By Oleg Bodrov, Green World Socio-ecological Union, Coalition Clean Baltic
The implementaion of international nuclear-weapons reduction treaties is leading to the removal of dozens of tons of weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear warheads. So that the process of disarmament cannot be stopped, it is necessary to transform the plutonium into a form that cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb. Experts and the members of the public in a number of countries have examined a variety of currently feasible methods to put excess weapons plutonium into a harmless form in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. They are:
Immobilization, or the transfer of plutonium into a some kind of matrix, with or without mixing it with high-level radioactive waste.
Burning the plutonium in nuclear power-generating reactors in the form of MOX fuel.
Burial in deep geologic formations.
Recently the option to burn plutonium as MOX fuel in light-water reactors or fast neutron reactors has been more and more agressively put forth as the only method of ridding society of the burden of excess weapons plutonium. In addition, the consequences of implementing a program to utilize plutonium as MOX fuel are unpredictable.
Considering the obvious technical, social and political difficulties of implementing such a program, it can be expected that these consequences will be negative for the following reasons:
1. Existing nuclear power reactor are designed for use with uranium fuel. An increase in the plutonium content in the core of such reactors makes it difficult to insure the reactor is safely under control. In case of a serious accident, a possibility that cannot be excluded with any contemporary working reactor, the consequences for the population and the environment will be severe.
2. The personnel at plutonium processing plants face much higher risks than personnel at uranium-fuel manufacturing facilities --plutonium processing involves one of the most dangerous substances ever created by humanity. It will cause pollution of of the very factories that produce MOX fuel.
3. The inclusion of plutonium into the nuclear fuel cycle will create a nuclear weapons proliferation threat, since the number of operations with plutonium, transport of plutonium-containing materials, and number of people with access to them, will be increased several times.
The one-time burning of plutonium in reactors without subsequent reprocessing of the irradiated fuel, suggested by some experts and government officials (including a number from the United States), will not solve the problem of excess weapons plutonium. Even if the plutonium fuel is burned only once, only half the plutonium loaded into the core will be destroyed. What is more, new reactor grade plutonium will be formed, which can then be separated from the irradiated fuel and used to produce a nuclear bomb, though not so sophisticated a bomb as could be produced with pure weapon-grade plutonium.
The Ministry of Atomic Energy of Russia considers plutonium a valuable raw material for the production of energy, and is not going to stop reprocessing its spent fuel. This is assuming that, having developed base technologies for the plutonium it currently possesses, Minatom gets the chance to produce more plutonium and burn it, too. So for Russia, the implementation of the MOX program signals the startup of a plutonium economy, or the building of reprocessing plants that pollute the environment for hundreds of miles around them, and the building of new reactors. In order to protect personnel from all kinds of harmful effects of plutonium isotopes, unimaginable technological and economic efforts will be required. Plutonium fuel can be produced only with remote-controlled equipment, which significantly raises the costs of the fuel. The plutonium economy is not only environmentally dangerous, but ruins the total economic system of the nation. It can only serve the interests of bureaucracies, never society.
Given that plutonium is characterized specifically as a nuclear weapons material, the danger of posed by its inclusion in the civil economy will strenghten the regimentation of the nuclear fuel cycle, and that entails strenghtening the states police funtions. The threat of nuclear terrorism is a reality of our time. Therefore society will be forced to boost security measures that are the provenance of the state. Consequently civil rights, the implementation of which has only just begun in Russia, will become the victim of civilian security.
In Russia the decision to use weapons materials removed from warheads in the process of nuclear disarmament is being made behind closed doors, without any broad discussion. Recently, a number of laws and orders have been issued to limit public access to information on this problem. This has been done in spite of the fact that these materials can be fundamentally considered a public achievement, since Russian society worked to produce them over a span of many years at the expense of vast material and human resources. Society itself should decide how to dispose of what it has inherited from the cold war. Social participation would aid not only the cause of public safety, but the development of Russian democracy.
Russian nongovernmental organizations are disturbed by the character of the developing Russian-American cooperation in the field of nuclear technologies. We believe this cooperation is not directed toward common efforts to lower nuclear and radiation dangers, toward a solution to the problem of radioactive wastes, cleanup of radiactive pollution, and compensation to the people of both countries who have suffered as a result of the arms race and accidents at nuclear fuel cycle installations.
Instead we see increasing efforts by the nuclear-military complexes of both coutries to lobby for MOX programs in both countries. U.S. assistance to Russia in this case will result in heigtened economic and political instability in our country, and threatens to bring about a new cold war.