Past, present and future

30 August 2001

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) is an independent research and advocacy centre specialising in problems of nuclear weapons proliferation. Here, NCI president Paul Leventhal explains how plutonium could cause mass destruction across the industry, and the world.

Proliferation is a major issue in the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear power may become more acceptable to the public if reprocessing is shut down.” These are the words of the pro-plutonium British Nuclear Industrial Forum, in a recent analysis of the prospects for the industry.

This statement echoes the long-held position of the NCI, whose mission is to help prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to nations or to groups. Some in industry and bureaucracy conclude that our opposition to civilian use of plutonium and of the other nuclear weapons material, highly enriched uranium (HEU), means that we are opposed to nuclear power. In fact, we are not an anti-nuclear organisation. We have maintained a policy of neutrality on nuclear power and steer clear of efforts to shut the industry down. We are anti-plutonium and anti-HEU, not anti-nuclear. Indeed, we have long advocated that such an approach is good for the industry, not just for the world.

It is important for industry to acknowledge the central role of fissile materials as the driving force behind proliferation. Granted, any decision to go nuclear is a political one, but the capability to execute that decision is technical. It is essentially impossible to build nuclear weapons without plutonium or HEU. Thus, the nuclear power industry imposes a menace on the world if it insists on utilising these explosive nuclear fuels when it is possible to run nuclear power and research reactors without them.

Nuclear power programmes have provided cover for actual or attempted weapons-making in a number of countries. In each case, closing the fuel cycle to extract plutonium, enriching uranium to weapons grade, or importing weapons-grade uranium to run research reactors were the quintessential elements of those programmes.

Seeking to restrict and eliminate use of these fuels was the objective of the Congressional non-proliferation initiatives of the 1970s and of the Ford and Carter administrations. But these initiatives ran into political trouble because of the fierce opposition of our European and Japanese allies, who refused to follow the US example.

The Japan factor

It is important to recognise the pivotal role of Japan in all of this. Questions have been raised as to why the NCI is so concerned about plutonium in Japan, given Japan’s adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to IAEA safeguards. My answer is that Japan strongly resisted US efforts to avoid commercial use of plutonium and is now the lynchpin for world plutonium commerce. Japan is the most important customer today of the European reprocessing and MOX industries. Without Japan, these industries might well be forced to shut down.

The Japanese plutonium programme is losing domestic public acceptance as a consequence of a succession of nuclear accidents in Japan, as well as a scandal that developed when BNFL workers deliberately falsified quality-control data for MOX fuel that was shipped to Japan for use in light-water reactors. Outside Japan, there is a considerable suspicion in the East Asian region as to why Japan wants to accumulate so much weapons-usable plutonium when there is a clear alternative in the form of low-enriched uranium fuel.

NCI has pointed out in a detailed, peer-reviewed economic analysis that Japan could ensure its energy security by building a strategic reserve of non-weapons-usable uranium at a fraction of the cost of its plutonium and breeder programmes. We won a debate with BNFL in the pages of this magazine (NEI September 1994, p50-51) after BNFL volunteered to make Japan’s case for plutonium in response to our arguments (NEI April 1994, p28-29).

NCI regards Japan as a special case, too, because — of all the civil plutonium-consuming countries — Japan refuses to acknowledge the weapons utility of reactor-grade plutonium despite many briefings on the subject by the US government. NCI commissioned the late Carson Mark, former head of weapons design at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to do an analysis of the weapons utility of reactor-grade plutonium. This study eventually won an acknowledgement from the IAEA that reactor-grade plutonium is suitable for use in weapons, but unfortunately the Japanese government and industry still refuse to follow suit.

Recently, the Japanese nuclear industry waged an all-out but unsuccessful campaign to convince the 4000 registered voters of Kariwa village to accept this controversial fuel in a local power plant and thus clear the way for its introduction into reactors throughout Japan. Rejection of so-called “pluthermal” fuel by nearly 60% of the voters in a community where most workers are employed by the utility company was a stunning defeat for plutonium advocates. Japanese utilities are on record as saying they won’t proceed with plutonium fuel without local approval, and the programme is now frozen in Niigata, Fukushima and Fukui prefectures where the first reactors selected for use of plutonium fuel are located. The reverberations of this vote are being felt outside Japan, especially in Britain and France, the principal suppliers of plutonium to Japan, and in the United States, where the Bush administration is weighing the reversal of a 25-year policy against plutonium use.


The Bush administration’s recent call for a major expansion of nuclear power, in combination with reconsideration of reprocessing and use of plutonium as reactor fuel, is a 21st century siren’s song. This invitation to catastrophe is especially worrisome because it is so misinformed.

A push for nuclear power and widespread use of plutonium isn’t the way to meet urgent energy needs. New plants could not be brought on line fast enough to offset present electricity shortages and would do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of the emissions of carbon dioxide are from transportation and other sources not related to power generation. If nuclear were used to replace coal plants on a global scale, there would have to be a tenfold increase in nuclear capacity to three thousand 1000MWe plants. Carbon emissions would be reduced by only 20%, but millions of kilograms of separated plutonium — equivalent to hundreds of thousands of bombs — would have to enter commerce each year to support the breeder reactors that no doubt would be required to sustain such a vast commitment of nuclear power.

The Bush energy plan also presses for pyroprocessing and accelerator transmutation of plutonium and other long-lived radioactive products in nuclear reactor spent fuel. Both approaches to reprocessing are uneconomic and dangerous. The plan fails to mention the enormous cost projected for establishing a national pyroprocessing and transmutation system. The Department of Energy estimated in 1999 that this programme would cost $280 billion and take 117 years to complete — very likely a gross underestimate given DoE’s average cost overrun of 500% on large capital projects. Transmutation, which involves pyroprocessing, reprocessing and sub-critical nuclear reactors, is highly problematical and in any event does not eliminate the need for a final waste repository.

The Bush energy plan cites the reprocessing and waste-management experience of Britain, France and Japan as an example for the United States to follow. In fact, neither France, Britain nor Japan has a long-term plan to dispose of large volumes of high-level waste associated with reprocessing. They are currently struggling not only with what to do with reprocessing waste, but with their rapidly growing stockpiles of unwanted, uneconomical, weapons-usable plutonium.

The French national utility, Electricté de France, recently admitted that reactor fuel made with separated plutonium is three to four times more expensive than the conventional fuel made with low-enriched uranium. The British plutonium programme has proved an economic and technological disaster, with a stockpile approaching some 70t of separated plutonium and no domestic utilities willing or able to use it. To service foreign customers, BNFL wants permission to start up the Sellafield MOX Plant on the basis of a projected lifetime operating “profit” of £217 million, which still falls far short of the £460 million cost of building the plant.

The Bush administration is now pushing a programme to dispose of excess weapons plutonium by turning it into MOX fuel for use in US and Russian power reactors. This is the most dangerous course, especially in Russia where security and safety measures fall far below western standards. It is also the most expensive. In the US, this programme is breathing new life into a moribund plutonium industry and giving hope to those who still advocate eventual separation of plutonium from commercial spent fuel. To make matters worse, the Bush administration has killed off funding for the faster, cheaper, safer course for military plutonium disposition — immobilisation of the plutonium by combining it with highly radioactive waste. This is the so-called “second track” begun under President Clinton. Surplus weapons plutonium in the US and Russia, as well as commercial plutonium worldwide, should be immobilised in existing highly radioactive, self-protecting nuclear waste, not used in reactors.

Plant security

Another concern of the NCI is of reactors as potential radiological weapons — that is, the risk of sabotage of nuclear plants. This is not just a Russian problem. Half the nuclear power plants in the United States have failed to repel mock attacks — so-called force-on-force exercises supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC refuses to take enforcement action in response to the failures, and is in the process of weakening the rules of the game because of industry complaints. The agency even refuses to officially acknowledge the pass-fail nature of the exercises when the mock attackers reach and “destroy” a complete set of redundant core cooling systems.

Our concern is that sabotage of nuclear plants may be the greatest domestic vulnerability in the United States today. Many plants are not protected adequately, industry operators are apparently not prepared to pay the cost of doing so, and the NRC seems ill-disposed to require them to do so. It is not even certain that security of nuclear plants against attack and sabotage can be assured by conventional, private means.

This subject also raises the larger question of the adequacy of nuclear regulation today. It is essential to maintain strong, independent nuclear regulation free of undue industry influence.

March of folly

One of NCI’s original Board members, the late historian Barbara Tuchman, gave a sobering description of the “march of folly” that drives nations to destruction. She identified this phenomenon, one repeated throughout recorded history, as “pervasive persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.” To qualify as folly, she said, it “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight… [and] a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.”

In this context, there is one question we need to ask ourselves: Is it reasonable to assume that millions of kilograms of plutonium, separated from reactor wastes, can be kept secure, down to amounts of less than eight kilograms, which is all that is needed for a bomb that can destroy a city? This question must be answered before giving any further support to an industry that remains officially committed to utilising plutonium as a fuel — and surely before supporting an extension and expansion of that industry in response to electricity-supply shortages and global warming.

When I started out in this field some 25 years ago as an aide in the United States Senate, David Lilienthal, the first Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, once remarked to me: “If we assume nuclear proliferation to be inevitable, of course it will be.” That made a lot of sense then, and it still does today. My hope is that common sense will prevail. It is possible to be against plutonium without being against the nuclear industry. Indeed, it is my fervent hope that the industry will yet come to see anti-plutonium to be pro-nuclear.

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