Within the next few months, the U.S. Department of Energy will
issue a Record of Decision regarding the storage and disposition
of excess weapons plutonium. This decision will be based upon
the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the Technical
Cost and Schedule Summary Report, and a nonproliferation and arms
control assessment of the various use and disposition options.
The goal of the options is to render the plutonium from weapons
to be no more attractive or accessible than the plutonium in spent
commercial reactor fuel - the "spent fuel standard" as
promulgated in the National Academy report. An additional criterion
in evaluating the disposition options is the impact on other countries.
In fact, this last criterion, particularly as it influences actions
taken by the Russian Federation and the republics of the Former
Soviet Union, may be the most important action. It should be
recognized that the initiatives which the U.S. chooses for weapons
materials disposition will strongly affect Russian decisions on
these matters. This impact should be a major factor in the government's
nonproliferation and arms control policy.
A relatively high confidence level exists about the security of
the storage of weapons materials in the United States and the
efficacy of the disposition options which might be used in this
country to achieve the spent fuel standard. The probability of
a subnational group stealing or diverting any of this material
appears to be vanishingly small. Moreover, a decision for the
U.S. to expand the nuclear stockpile beyond the yet-to-be-ratified
START-II levels would represent a very major change in national
policy along with far reaching national debate.
However, these circumstances are hardly characteristic of the
situation in Russia. Real concerns exist about the security of
stored weapons material there. In addition, formal policy statements
confirm that Russia regards its weapons plutonium as a "national
treasure" for its energy value which is to be used in liquid
metal reactors and possibly light water reactors. However, the
Ministry of Atomic Energy has not yet declared how much of its
fissile weapons material is excess to national security needs,
and it is surmised that Russia has produced considerably more
fissile weapons grade material than the United States, by perhaps
a factor of two or three, and they may still be producing. Certainly,
Russia is still in transition to a free, open, democratic society
governed by a rule of law. The possibility of theft or diversion
of fissile material to nonweapons states or reuse of material
in weapons systems cannot be precluded. This then suggests that
the security and disposition of Russia's fissile weapons material
should be a major element of U.S. nonproliferation policy. Within
this context, the impact on Russia of the U.S. disposition strategy
should be given a prominence well beyond being only a criterion
in assessing our own options.
The first element in this policy should be the safe and secure
storage of Russian material. Critical steps in this effort are
being taken by the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to build
a storage facility at the Mayak Production Association at Chelyabinsk-70.
However, still needed are simple, reliable methods of transparency
to give confidence that material stored at the Mayak facility
remain in place. These methods must be technically mature, yet
sufficiently robust and "off-the-shelf", so that the
result is a level of confidence on both sides that the mission
is being carried out successfully. Overly sophisticated approaches
which have not been adequately proven may prove to be counter
Beyond safe secure storage, U.S. policy decisions must be aimed
at assuring that Russia moves towards disposition of its own material.
This should be an overriding goal since it is the Russian material
which poses the clear and present danger. U.S. policy should
also seek to recognize and understand the Russian perspective.
Too often the United States has embarked on actions on the faulty
premise that the rest of the world should see the global perspective
from our point of view, without regard to their own culture or
other national, geopolitical, or fiscal constraints. An example
in the nuclear area would be the decision on the part of the U.S.
to forego reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel with the idea that
this would set an example for the rest of the world to remove
separated plutonium from the commercial fuel cycle. There is
little evidence that this decision has had such an effect. Rather,
virtually every other major nuclear country has chosen to reprocess
spent commercial fuel. The result for the U.S. has been a significant
loss in international leadership because other countries find
it difficult to understand how we could make such a flawed technical
decision in order to achieve questionable foreign policy goals.
Additionally, in doing so, we have exacerbated an already difficult
situation in terms of commissioning a permanent repository for
high level radioactive wastes since we have greatly increased
the volume of material for disposal and extended the time needed
to assure the performance of the depository by including very
long lived transuranic wastes. The lesson learned from this is
that we must exercise great care in establishing our nonproliferation
policy with respect to Russia and its weapons plutonium.
The three options under consideration by the U.S., deep geologic
disposal, immobilization, and reactors, either individually or
in some combination, can reasonably be considered to achieve the
goal of putting our weapons plutonium in a form no more attractive
or accessible than spent nuclear fuel. The same options, however,
might not carry the same implications for the Russian material.
More importantly, the choice of one or more of these options
in the U.S. program may motivate the Russians to indefinitely
delay the disposition of their excess fissile material. In this
regard, the principal questions relate to immobilization and boreholes.
Spent nuclear fuel, for purposes relating to weapon material disposition,
has three main characteristics. It is highly radioactive by virtue
of the presence of fission products. It is large, heavy and unwieldy
due to the design of light water reactor fuel assemblies. And
it contains reactor grade plutonium with Pu-239 contents in the
range of 55% to 70% of the plutonium. Weapons plutonium placed
in boreholes or immobilization will still contain weapons grade
plutonium in the range of 93% Pu-239 or greater. While on a theoretical
and engineering basis reactor grade plutonium can be fashioned
into a weapon, in practice, no nuclear weapons state has chosen
to build a nuclear arsenal based on reactor grade plutonium.
Weapons grade plutonium is inherently more attractive than reactor
grade plutonium for the purposes of constructing nuclear weapons.
In addition, plutonium placed in any medium is recoverable.
So a decision on the part of the United States to use boreholes
or immobilization may in fact be perceived by the Russians as
not being a serious disposition action. The result is that they
may choose another action, such as long term storage, so that
no effective removal of fissile material from potential weapons
use will take place. It is credible to assume that Congress and
the American public will not support the disposition of weapons
material unless there are comparable initiatives in Russia. If
U.S. decisions for plutonium disposition do not stimulate similar
responses in Russia, or in fact have the opposite effect of delaying
or stopping actions there, then a critical opportunity will have
been lost and the entire purpose of weapons material disposition
will have been thwarted. It is crucial then that extremely careful
consideration be given to the impact that the U.S. decisions will
have on Russia. If any of our options either promote or retard
a particular Russian response, this factor should be a major element
in our decision making.
During the past two years, the Amarillo Center has had opportunities
to interact with individuals not only in Minatom and the Minatom
institutes but other agencies, government, academia and other
organizations and walks of life. Our discussions with them suggest
that the views in Russia summarized above are credible and wide
spread. There continues to be not only questions about the future
of their own country but uneasiness about the policies of the
U.S. towards Russia. These perceptions are important in determining
the ways to implement the chosen disposition actions and how we
can influence Russia as part of this process.
A common approach used in international diplomacy is multiple meetings of delegations in rarefied settings. While this approach is a necessary element of international relations, there is ample evidence that such actions are rarely fully productive. It is equally, or perhaps even more, important to engage the Russians directly on an ongoing basis. The building of trust and a sense of comfort cannot be overstated if we are to achieve our national goals. We must "talk with" our counterparts, not "talk at" them. Recent innovations such as the DOE "lab-to-lab" program is a very significant step in this process. However, the lab-to-lab program does have certain inherent limitations. As part of its nonproliferation efforts, DOE should seek to identify multifaceted approaches to build partnerships with Russian organizations and individuals who play increasingly key roles in the ever widening debate in Russia related to its strategic future and the disposition of its weapons materials. A carefully conceived set of initiatives could have the ultimate result of leading to effective disposition of weapons grade plutonium in both countries and eliminating the clear and present danger to world security posed by excess weapons materials.