Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

God of  Modern Hell - Plutonium, Politics and Posturing

News in Review,
Monday 15th May

Plutonium – so aptly named after the Greek god of the underworld. The debate on plutonium at the current off-Broadway production - the NPT Review Conference – also contains many   elements of tragedy that would be recognizable to the ancient the Greeks. 

There are a number of contentious issues surrounding plutonium, its production and 'management.' There's the what, who and how of plutonium taken from warheads and its exact designation and 'safeguarding.' There are the military stockpiles of fissile material - and the testy question of halting the production of plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium for military use. Last, but by no means least, there is also the question of what to do, physically, with these materials if and when they are handed over for 'civilian' use or 'disposition.'

Much of this debate has taken place in Main Committee II (MCII) of the NPT which is charged with discussing the NPT and its links to IAEA safeguards on nuclear material and technology transfer (as well as Nuclear Weapons Free Zones).   However, there are also many parts of MCII which are directly linked with text being discussed in MCI (covering disarmament) and MC III (peaceful uses of nuclear energy). For example, if a country disarms (MCI) then it has to do something with plutonium and that means discussing long-term management (in terms of protection, verification and disposition) of plutonium – covered by MCII. However, that also, inevitably, leads to a broader discussion on civilian stockpiles – particularly the question of their potential for diversion – which comes under MCIII.

In the past week there have been a number of minor and major changes to the text in the Chairman's Draft Report of the MCII.   Most of these have been put forward by the Nuclear Weapons States (US, UK, Russia, China and France), all of which have concerns over differing aspects of including or broadening safeguards over fissile material, the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and the 'irreversibility' of processes to prevent access to nuclear weapons materials in the future.

Amendments and additions made to the text to date ensure that measures currently being applied to plutonium removed from warheads will be held in limbo - and also no progress will made in this field in the next five years beyond the current limited agreements. For example, paragraph 45 of the Chair's report from MCII states "The Conference notes the announcements made by some nuclear weapons states that they have ceased the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices and urges those that have not done so to make a similar announcement." The last sentence, emphasized here in italics, was deleted a couple of days ago. It's obvious which countries pushed for that change.

But beyond the contentious issue of a fissile material cut-off – disappearing ever further into the future – there are also many other unanswered questions concerning the disposition of plutonium from warheads.

For example, which body should have control over fissile material once it is designated as not for military purposes?  Many groups, Greenpeace included, believe that an independent agency should be established which oversees disarmament – and that that should be the responsible organisation for supervising the disposition of fissile materials. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not considered to be the appropriate body, not the least of which is because of the agency's conflicting aims. The IAEA's sanctioning of the use of plutonium in mixed-oxide (MOX) uranium-plutonium fuel - as shipped to Japan last year - is unacceptable on environmental, proliferation and health grounds and is leading to serious questions over the actions of the agency.

Questions have also been raised over whether fissile material from weapons programs should be managed under a 'traditional' safeguards regime (under the IAEA) or through a different verification mechanism. Whatever form such legal controls might take will decide who has interim control of fissile material and its 'disposition.'

Assuming, however, the accurate identification of weapons material, the verification of inventories and the physical protection of such are resolved (assuming also it is not used in 'peaceful' applications such as MOX) then the discussion turns to how it is managed and stored. This involved  questions over the retrievability of fissile materials and just how 'irreversible' is the disarmament process?

It is no secret that the safe and effective long-term immobilization of radioactive wastes, spent fuel and separated fissile materials is a major problem confronting the nuclear industry. Apart from the obvious issues pertaining to environmental and health, 'securing' fissile material so it can never be used again is a significant challenge. Plutonium has to be incorporated into materials that can not be readily processed and allow for re-conversion for weapons purposes.

An ISIS-sponsored seminar on (27th April) at the NPT discussed the options open for dealing with plutonium. Differing opinions were expressed over whether the US Department of Energy's favoured option – can-in-canister (plutonium in synroc encapsulated encased in vitrified high level waste) would be effective. There are concerns that this form does not meet the technical requirements of making the packages meet the 'spent fuel standard' – that is radioactive enough to deter those who might want to re-use the plutonium for weapons. There are also experiments using (explosives or laser cutting) which are testing the integrity of the can-in-canister.

Even if all of these seeming insuperable problems are answered one other vexing issue remains to be resolved – where to put the final product. Should it be left with the weapons states? Can they be trusted not to attempt to recover fissile materials? If not, where will it go. That, thankfully, is a question for another day. ENDS

Postscript. The relevant paragraph made it into the final document as "The Conference welcomes the announcement made by some nuclear-weapon States that they have ceased the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." One of the main promoters of this wording was France which insisted in having its "practical work" (e.g. dismantling its dedicated military reprocessing Marcoule) recognised at the NPT. Needless to say there is much hypocrisy in France's stance, not the least of which is because it worked in unison with the other nuclear weapons states to block a whole range of initiatives on fissile material control in other parts of the conference. China was the main block in getting rid of the sentence that called on other states to declare an end to plutonium production.

Early in the NPT proceedings, Australia, as part of the G10 (which covers: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden) put its name to a working paper (NTP/conf.2000/MC.II/WP.7) that had the following wording:

"The Conference reaffirms that all plutonium and highly enriched uranium for civil purposes should be under IAEA safeguards. The Conference encourages States to examine the long-term arrangements for the management of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, in order to avoid the stockpiling of material that could potentially be diverted to direct use for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

For many in the environment movement this looks like a fairly sensible proposal. However, for a country like Australia – with its involvement in the Japanese mix-oxide uranium/plutonium program – this wording is fairly radical. Does this mean officials now accept what we have been saying for some time, that 'civil' (reactor-grade) plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons? Whilst the IAEA has always applied the same level of safeguards to all mixes of plutonium, the Australian Safeguards and  Non-Proliferation Office has questioned the merit of this, claiming it implies that 'reactor grade' is weapons-usable – which ASNO says is not the case. Further papers on this will follow in the coming months!