Power from bomb plutonium questioned

30 August 2001

The programme to convert 100t of American and Russian weapons-grade plutonium looks likely to be abandoned by the Bush administration.

Officials deny that the programme is dead but say that it is under review. Earlier this year the Department of Energy predicted a $6.6 billion cost for conversion of the American stocks to fuel, about three times the initial estimates. It put Russia’s cost at $1.76 billion.

The plan, conceived in the mid-90s, was to take 50t each of American and Russian plutonium from weapons and either convert into MOX fuel or immobilise by mixing with nuclear waste. The Clinton administration expected that the US and other rich countries would help pay, but no firm pledges were ever made.

The proposed DoE budget does not include the money needed for immobilisation. Conversion to MOX also looks unlikely – there are no facilities in the US or Russia at present, and no firm plans to build any.

The Bush administration appears to be considering a variety of other options, including a new generation of reactors that could burn plutonium more thoroughly.

Tom Clements of the Nuclear Control Institute – which opposes the use of plutonium in reactors (see p 39) – commented: “We think their assessment of MOX is correct. The problem is, it appears they’ve also rejected the cheaper alternative, which is immobilisation.”

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