Friday, September 21, 2007

One step forward, two steps back

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman announced this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency that the United States would declare another 9 metric tons of plutonium as excess material, “enough to make over 1,000 nuclear weapons.” The material from dismantled nuclear weapons will be removed over “the coming decades” and will be used to make mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel at the controversial MOX facility in Savannah River, South Carolina.

These 9 MT will be added to the 45 MT tons of plutonium that the United States has declared excess material (34 MT of which is already slated for fuel fabrication at the Savannah River Site [SRS]).

While this announcement is a useful step in further reducing the amount of excess plutonium and furthering the objectives of Article VI of the NPT, Secretary Bodman in the same breath touted the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) which has been one of the Bush Administration’s top energy and foreign policy priorities. The GNEP program would resume commercial spent fuel reprocessing in the United States, separating out tens of metric tons of weapons-usable material per year. The United Kingdom for example has a stockpile of over 100 MT of plutonium as a result of thirty years of reprocessing, and France has accumulated about 80 MT.

Reprocessing is not a necessary part of the fuel cycle, and unnecessarily producing weapons-usable material undermines U.S. efforts to convince other states not to engage in plutonium reprocessing. Another proliferation concern is that reprocessing would create additional stockpiles of plutonium or a plutonium mix that might be diverted by terrorists. In fact, due to proliferation risks and costs, the United States has not reprocessed spent fuel from commercial power plants for over thirty years, when President Ford and then President Carter stopped U.S. commercial reprocessing after India diverted reprocessed plutonium for its first nuclear explosive test in 1974.

So far, the Department of Energy will not make the commitment that the material extracted from nuclear waste will not be weapons-usable.

So while we should celebrate the declaration of additional excess plutonium, it is difficult to ignore that at the same time as Secretary Bodman defends U.S. contribution to non-proliferation, he is promoting the expansion of Department of Energy’s GNEP efforts that will lead to a new plutonium economy.

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