Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 11, December 1996
US announces programme for surplus plutoniumOn 9 December, the US Department of Energy (DOE) set out, in rich detail, its plans for dealing with surplus weapons-grade plutonium. The plans incorporate two alternative methods for disposing of an estimated 50 tonnes of surplus plutonium, a project which is anticipated to take over 20 years: burying it (vitrifying it in glass or ceramic); or burning it in commercial reactors in combination with non-weapons-grade nuclear materials (a combination known as MOX, or Mixed-Oxide). Both methods will be studied for a two year period, before a final assessment is made. See Documents and Sources for substantial coverage.
According to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary on 9 December:
"For five decades, the United States built up a huge stockpile of plutonium... Today, we begin to destroy it. We have a clear message to the world: we are committed to irreversible nuclear reduction and we will ensure that surplus plutonium is never again used for nuclear weapons."
In a 1 November letter to Secretary O'Leary, John Holum, the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Association, set out his opposition to the MOX option, which he said would "set a very damaging precedent for US non-proliferation policy." Holum, and other opponents of the scheme, argue that it contradicts US efforts to discourage the use of plutonium in civil nuclear reactors out of concern that it could be reprocessed back into weapons-grade material. Although the DOE plan rules out any such reprocessing, Holum commented:
"If the hybrid [i.e., burn and bury] option is chosen...[certain] countries would hear only one message for the next 25 years; that plutonium use for generating commercial power is now being blessed by the United States... No matter how much effort we take in reducing these risks [of reprocessing], and I understand and appreciate the effort that DOE has put into identifying the steps to do so, the overriding message is that civil plutonium use is acceptable."
Reports: ACDA Chief objects to MOX option for weapons-grade PU disposition, Nucleonics Week, 21 November; US announces two-pronged plutonium disposal plan, Agence France-Presse International News, 9 December; US set to scrap surplus plutonium, Reuter News Reports, 9 December.
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