The U.S. Department of Energy is working to reduce
a serious threat to national and international security by designing
a program to dispose of sizable inventories of excess weapons
plutonium. These inventories have resulted from the dismantlement
of nuclear warheads in the United States and Russia. The U.S.
Government recognizes that it must take the lead in assuring that
this weapons-grade plutonium is disabled. The present Russian
position is that it would agree to dispose of its excess weapons-grade
plutonium only by using it for power generation - that is, disabling
the plutonium by using it as fuel in nuclear power plants. And
there have been indications that they would use their weapons
plutonium in nuclear power plants only if the United States does
the same with at least a portion of its weapons plutonium.
If DOE decides that the excess U.S. weapons plutonium
should be fabricated into fuel and used to generate electricity
in nuclear power plants, the Government would need to develop
special business arrangements with several industrial firms -
at least one company experienced in fabricating nuclear fuel from
mixed oxide (MOX) powder containing plutonium and uranium, and
one or more nuclear utilities willing to enter into a contractual
arrangement with DOE to use DOE's MOX fuel assemblies in their
nuclear power plants.
The Senior Technical Review Group (STRG) recommends that defining and developing these arrangements should now be a major priority of the Government. Specifically:
To assist in planning and implementing the MOX fuel strategy, this report addresses issues related to the business relationships between DOE and experienced MOX fuel fabricators to arrange for the production of the fuel; the business relationships between DOE and nuclear utilities to arrange for the disabling of the fuel by using it in nuclear power plants; and the changes needed in the institutional framework to allow these business arrangements to succeed. Because the members of the STRG have limited expertise in Canada's nuclear policies and technologies - another option being considered by DOE - this report focuses exclusively on the disabling of weapons plutonium in U.S. power plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy is currently considering
strategies for disposing of excess plutonium that has been removed
from nuclear warheads. This decision and the program that it defines
will be of the highest level of importance to the interests of
the United States.
The Committee on International Security and Arms
Control of the National Academy of Sciences has described the
existence of such material in the United States and the former
Soviet Union as "a clear and present danger to national and
international security." The Senior Technical Review Group
agrees. The United States must recognize the extremely serious
consequences of any misuse of this plutonium by governments that
now possess it, other governments that manage to obtain it or
non-governmental organizations with extremist agendas. The U.S.
Government should move on an urgent basis to define and implement
a systematic program that will result in the early disabling of
the excess weapons plutonium both here and in Russia.
Of the range of options that DOE has been considering, it is now focusing its attention on two technological approaches. The hybrid approach recommended by STRG would consist of using both of these options where they are most appropriate:
The STRG recommends a combination of these two options:
fully disabling all weapons plutonium that can be transformed
into MOX fuel, by using it in the cores of nuclear power plants,
and immobilizing residues and other weapons plutonium material
The overriding reason for this hybrid strategy is that the U.S. program must include disabling its applicable weapons plutonium in nuclear power plants if we want Russia to do the same. Russian leaders have emphasized that they would see a U.S. policy of vitrifying all our excess weapons plutonium in glass logs as a method of keeping it accessible for future use. They want to be able to use the energy content of their weapons plutonium in their nuclear power plants, but they will do so only if we are also using a portion of our weapons plutonium as fuel. If we do not proceed with the MOX fuel option, Russia may maintain its weapons plutonium in storage, and "the clear and present danger" will remain.
One of the principal challenges to using weapons
plutonium as MOX fuel in nuclear power plants will be arranging
the cooperative relationships among DOE, MOX fuel fabricators
and nuclear utilities.
STRG members have consulted with a representative
number of experienced fabricators and utilities that filed an
Expression of Interest in response to DOE's request. While there
is a high level of interest in participating in this effort, there
are also serious concerns.
Concerns of Fabricators
Three European firms - Belgonucleaire, BNFL and Cogema - have extensive experience in fabricating MOX fuel from plutonium separated by chemical reprocessing from spent fuel. This experience will directly apply to fabricating MOX fuel from weapons plutonium. There are no apparent technical difficulties in fabricating MOX fuel from weapons plutonium that has been converted into an oxide. DOE is expected to conduct tests to confirm the viability of this approach.
For these fuel fabricators, the primary concern about
the U.S. weapons plutonium program is economic risk. They are
aware of the U.S. Government's history of changing policies on
nuclear issues, including the Government's decision to oppose
the reprocessing of spent fuel in the 1970s after industrial firms
had spent significant amounts of money constructing reprocessing
facilities. These firms will need contractual arrangements that
assure adequate reimbursement of costs and investment if the Government
for any reason changes its policy on using weapons plutonium as
MOX fuel. With that qualification, one or more of the potential
fabricators would be interested in participating in the program
- whether by consulting, transferring technology, constructing
the fabrication facility or suitably modifying an existing facility,
operating it under contract or owning it and operating it as a
Concerns of U.S. Utilities
For nuclear utilities, the provisions will be more complicated. Fabricators will make a profit on fabricating MOX fuel. Utilities that own nuclear power plants, however, will not automatically benefit economically; in fact, utilities could suffer additional costs, regulatory requirements, public interventions and perhaps significant business risks in providing their reactors to disable DOE's weapons plutonium.
By agreeing to use MOX fuel, utilities would be accepting
such costs, complications and financial risks as these:
Despite these costs and uncertainties, DOE received 15 Expressions of Interest in using MOX fuel in nuclear power plants from a total of 17 electric utilities (two responses were submitted jointly by two utilities). They indicated that utilities would expect the Government to fund all additional costs that would be associated with using MOX fuel and to provide additional compensation for their services.
Extensive Experience with MOX Fuel
There is extensive worldwide experience in using MOX fuel in nuclear power plants. Several nuclear power plants in the United States used partial cores of MOX fuel for testing in the 1960s and '70s. Several countries in Europe use MOX fuel routinely today. MOX fuel is currently used in eight nuclear power plants in Germany, seven in France, two in Belgium and two in Switzerland. By the year 2000, France expects to be using MOX fuel in 28 power plants. All of these plants are conventional PWRs and BWRs, very similar to U.S. designs. The MOX fuel constitutes one-third of their core loadings.
Experience with using MOX fuel has been based on
plutonium reprocessed from spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
Several nations - including Belgium, England and France - reprocess
their spent nuclear fuel to retrieve and re-use the remaining
fissionable uranium and plutonium. The reprocessing of nuclear
fuel was halted in the United States in the mid-1970s. None of
the facilities addressed in this report would be designed to reprocess
spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
The MOX fuel program being considered by DOE would
involve plutonium from weapons programs. The commercial MOX fuel
experience of other countries is directly relevant to the proposed
U.S. program. In all that experience, there have been no operational,
environmental or safety implications significantly different from
the use of conventional low-enriched uranium fuel.
Most experience with using plutonium in reactor fuel
has involved cores made up of one-third MOX and two-thirds conventional
low-enriched uranium. Three operating nuclear power units in
the United States - Palo Verde 1-3 in Arizona - were designed
to accommodate cores made up entirely of MOX fuel. Other U.S.
nuclear power plants would be expected to use cores containing
no more than one-third MOX fuel, until additional research confirms
that higher core loadings are feasible and determines the extent
of plant modifications that would be required. Recent research
by DOE indicates that higher core loadings could be possible in
both pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors; additional
analysis would be needed to confirm this.
Amount of Weapons Plutonium Available
According to DOE, the United States is expected to have approximately 50 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium available by about 2005. Russia has indicated that it will have at least the same amount. A National Academy of Sciences report has estimated that this material will have been removed from approximately 10,000 to 20,000 nuclear warheads dismantled by each country.
The NAS Panel on Reactor-Related Options has calculated
that under typical operating conditions in a 1,000-megawatt pressurized
water reactor containing one-third MOX fuel in its cores, it would
take approximately 243 reactor-years to process the 50 metric
tons of excess U.S. weapons plutonium. This means that it would
take 10 reactors 24.3 years each, 20 reactors 12.15 years each,
etc. Using full MOX cores under the same circumstances would
reduce the number of reactor-years required to one-third these
numbers and accelerate the plutonium disposition schedule. Other
technical factors, such as higher concentration of plutonium in
the MOX fuel, could further reduce the number of reactor-years
The United States has 110 nuclear power plants with
operating licenses. All U.S. nuclear power plants would require
an amendment to their NRC operating licenses to use MOX fuel,
even the three Palo Verde units designed to accommodate full MOX
The process for creating and using MOX fuel would involve three distinct steps:
Disassembly - existing plutonium pits that exist
primarily in DOE's Pantex facility in Amarillo, Texas, would be
disassembled and the plutonium separated. This process would
take place at a Government facility.
Conversion - the metallic plutonium separated from
the pits would be converted into a powder form, plutonium oxide.
The conversion to plutonium oxide power could take place at a
Government facility, perhaps adjoining the pit disassembly process,
or at the MOX fuel fabrication facility, depending upon which
arrangement is more cost-effective and which reduces transportation
requirements. The dry conversion process that DOE is developing
results in the plutonium oxide having some parts per million of
gallium, as contrasted with the European MOX which has no gallium.
The large body of available reactor irradiation experience is
on gallium-free MOX. DOE plans to perform irradiation tests to
determine the effects, if any, of the gallium. However, such
irradiation tests are time-consuming and provide limited results
from a statistical standpoint. The STRG recommends that a thorough
assessment be performed, as quantitatively as possible, of the
trade-off between leaving the gallium in the fuel versus reducing
its concentration by thermal processing or removing it completely
by chemical separation.
Fabrication - The mixed plutonium oxide and uranium oxide powders would be compressed into small pellets that are then placed into fuel rods, which are bundled into fuel assemblies. This process would be conducted by an experienced MOX fuel fabrication company - possibly at a fabrication facility that it has built and owns, or possibly under contract at a Government-owned facility.
The disassembly operations are properly functions
of the Government. As with similar sensitive Government programs,
these operations could be contracted to industrial firms under
These activities should be located on Government
property, preferably property that is already secure and protected.
Existing nuclear reservations would be most appropriate, both
for security and efficiency, including Hanford, Pantex and Savannah
River. DOE should base its decision not strictly on costs (which
can be highly uncertain), but also on safeguards effectiveness,
transportation, the acceptability of such a process to the surrounding
community and on how fast the work can be started and completed.
Changing the plutonium metal to oxide form could
be performed at a Government facility or at a MOX fuel fabrication
facility, depending on which arrangement is more cost-effective
and reduces transportation requirements.
In order to meet the urgent schedule requirements
and to encourage the participation of qualified vendors, the Government
may need to provide the facility for the oxide fabrication. The
fuel fabrication contractor, however, would properly be responsible
for the design of a new facility or modification of an existing
one at a Government-owned site. An important vendor qualification
is experience with and access to European MOX fuel experience.
The objective of the business arrangement would be
for the fabrication contractor to operate the facility with procedures
and incentives as close as possible to a commercial basis.
It would also be appropriate for the contractor to
assume the responsibility for the licensing and all aspects of
the cost-effective conversion of the Government-furnished material
into MOX fuel for utility use.
DOE and the fabricators will also need to work out
the appropriate placement of liability among the parties involved,
to prevent uncertainties about liabilities from becoming a serious
Since this type of contract may prove to be somewhat
unique, we recommend that some modification of the Department
of Defense's two-step negotiated procurement approach be adopted.
First, after developing a short list of qualified suppliers,
the Government would request preliminary conceptual designs for
a licensable plant, including construction and operating cost
estimates, and would pay the competing suppliers a fee for the
development of these plans.
Then, based on the results of negotiations with these
potential suppliers, DOE would select the contractor for the design,
construction (or modification of an existing facility) and initial
operation of the facility.
Developing the complex of MOX fuel processing facilities
is clearly the critical path to the full-scale operation of this
program. The planning, site selection, contractor selection,
design and other decisions should be made as soon as possible
(to allow implementation to begin as soon as the U.S. Government
and Russia formally agree on a weapons plutonium disposition schedule).
The MOX fuel fabrication facility should receive
priority attention. It will require an NRC license, which will
be time-consuming. Its planning and licensing should be expedited,
to avoid a delay in the entire program. To move the licensing
process ahead on an expedited schedule, DOE should consider funding
the initial phases of the NRC's licensing process and work with
the NRC to establish the specific procedures and framework.
Two vital needs for the MOX fuel fabrication operation
are up-to-date experience with MOX fuel fabrication and in-depth
experience with the NRC licensing process. Those capabilities
may not be held by a single firm. Therefore, DOE should welcome
joint venture bids, or their counterparts, that may involve international
If the United States has not developed its capability
to fabricate commercial MOX fuel assemblies on a timely basis,
MOX fuel test assemblies and subsequent initial cores could be
fabricated from U.S.-provided oxide in existing European fabrication
facilities to expedite the program. These test assemblies and
initial cores would be placed in U.S. nuclear power plants.
After the first few fuel loadings, however, the United States should plan to fabricate its MOX fuel domestically. The large-scale transfer of weapons plutonium in any form to other countries would lead to public and political acceptance difficulties. These difficulties might be alleviated for the fuel assembly testing and initial core loadings by having the international shipments conducted by the military.
Utilities see the program to use DOE's MOX fuel in
their nuclear power plants as a significant uncertainty and burden.
It will entail direct and indirect costs, NRC license amendments,
additional regulatory involvement, possible opposition from the
public or special interest groups, the possibility of affecting
the schedule of their nuclear plant operations, new security and
operational safety requirements, new fuel transportation factors
and a new management burden at a time when they are facing unprecedented
Nevertheless, 17 utilities have expressed an interest
in being considered for this program. Some may see it as a possible
financial opportunity, depending on the level of inducement DOE
offers; others may see it as a genuine public service - an opportunity
to contribute to the reduction of nuclear weapons materials.
In either case, because utilities are under extreme cost-reduction
pressures, they are likely to expect as a minimum full compensation
for their costs, time, effort and risk and a fee for the service.
Based on conversations with potential utility participants
and the provisions they included with their Expressions of Interest,
we recommend that DOE plan to reimburse all incremental costs
associated with this program, including technical analyses, licensing,
any necessary plant modification, core design changes, effects
on decommissioning and decontamination, fuel and spent fuel storage
costs, any losses related to existing uranium fuel contracts,
additional plant security and additional outages (including replacement
In addition, these utilities generally see a need
for DOE to conduct, fund or participate significantly in the information
and advocacy programs that will be needed to make clear to state
and local government officials, local communities, the media and
the public why this program is essential to eliminate a large
amount of Russian nuclear weapons material.
DOE should not try to specify the fee that utilities
will charge for using DOE's MOX fuel in their nuclear power plants.
In addition to covering the incremental costs to utilities, described
in Recommendation #2, the additional fee paid by DOE could take
many forms, including dollar or fuel credits for the energy obtained
from the MOX fuel, additional free fuel (from DOE's uranium supplies),
shifting the utility's share of the Federal high-level waste fee
to DOE, possible tax advantages, direct fees, etc. Utilities
should be encouraged to submit their own approaches.
Many important elements of this program will be outside
the control of the utilities, and they will need adequate warranties
that these elements will be implemented according to specifications
agreed upon and the schedule specified. DOE's responsibilities
will include supporting a consistent Government policy through
enabling legislation, providing security and safeguards for fuel
transportation and assuring that the MOX fuel arrives at the nuclear
plants on schedule and in accordance with technical specifications.
DOE should retain ownership of the MOX fuel assemblies,
and should be responsible for accepting possession of the spent
fuel assemblies on schedule.
The options that DOE has been considering include
building new nuclear plants to use the MOX fuel and completing
nuclear plants that utilities were forced to leave unfinished.
The STRG recommends that those options not be favored.
Completing an unfinished or building a new nuclear
power plant could take a decade or longer, with the uncertainties
associated with the NRC licensing process and the political complications
of DOE's involvement. Either would be far more expensive than
using existing reactors. And even if one new nuclear plant were
completed, the process of disabling the 50 metric tons of weapons
plutonium by one reactor would take many times longer than if
several nuclear plants participated in the program.
Even though many utilities appear to be planning
to renew their nuclear plant licenses, DOE should not assume that
any plants selected for this program will operate beyond the expiration
date of their existing licenses.
Because of their size and capital cost, nuclear power
plants are strategically important investments to utilities that
own them. Since they need to get the maximum amount of production
out of their nuclear plants, utilities work hard to remove uncertainties
and reduce the amount of time that they are out of operation.
Accordingly, the DOE program should minimize technical uncertainties
and operating or reporting procedures that vary significantly
from current nuclear power plant operating practices.
To help minimize technical and regulatory uncertainties,
DOE should begin the program with one-third MOX core loadings,
until use of higher core loadings is confirmed and can be confidently
Utility executives will require the ability to change
back to conventional uranium fuel if the use of MOX fuel becomes
a serious operational problem or if the Government decides to
stop the program.
For national and international security and nonproliferation
reasons, it will be as important to complete this program on an
accelerated basis as it is to begin it promptly. The program
will need an adequate number of nuclear power plants to assure
the full disabling of all the excess metallic weapons plutonium
before the end of their current licenses, as well as enough redundancy
to provide for the possibility that some of the plants could stop
participating before the end of their licenses.
The responsibilities of utilities will include review
and approval of the fabricators' specifications and processes,
full compliance with licensing, safe plant operations, proper
maintenance and refueling practices and other practices to ensure
safety, high plant availability and fuel security.
There are many interdependencies in the licensing
as well as the technical implementation of the program among the
various elements of fuel quality, fabrication specifications,
shipping casks and their transportation, fuel assembly receipt
and storage at the plant, reactor operation with the MOX fuel
and refueling operations.
The overall systems manager would be in the best
position to address these interdependencies in full, in the planning,
testing and demonstration and the implementation phases. A utility,
operating as an individual company or as a member of a joint-venture
team, would be in a strong position to discharge this responsibility
because of previous experience in operations with uranium fuel.
The system management role would best be contracted at an early stage of the program to permit effective planning to track the interdependencies, to address licensing requirements and to assure involvement in the testing and demonstration efforts that precede the production phases of the plutonium disposition program.
The existence of large quantities of available weapons
plutonium, particularly in a nation with as many political uncertainties
as Russia, must be seen as a major threat to the United States.
The Government should exercise the leadership that such a serious
We recommend that the President and other senior
Administration officials begin speaking out about the importance
of this issue to national and international security. This demonstration
of the Government's commitment will help attract the attention
of potential industrial partners, help build support from decision-makers
and the public and keep the pressure on moving the program as
expeditiously as possible.
To give this initiative stability and predictability,
the Administration should enter into an executive agreement with
Russia and work toward a formal treaty. The agreement and treaty
would also specify appropriate verification procedures.
As a part of these agreements, implementing legislation
should be enacted that codifies the schedule for the two countries'
plutonium disposition program and authorizes the funds necessary
to meet it. This legal action will provide clear direction to
the managers of this program and provide greater certainty of
funding and long-term commitment, which will help attract participation
from fuel fabricators and utilities.
Even before the executive agreement is executed,
DOE should move ahead expeditiously with the detailed planning,
contracting, advance licensing work and public and political information
programs that will make it possible for the program to begin quickly
This initiative is fundamentally a serious national
and international security program. It will require action by
several governmental agencies and by Congress. In order to implement
the program and assure its continuity, the Administration should
name and empower a single manager to assure that the regulatory
and policy developments that are required take place by the time
they are needed.
This program will need amendments to the nuclear
power plants' operating licenses from the NRC; an NRC license
to build and operate the MOX fuel fabrication plant; and possible
inter-agency cooperation in the transport of the plutonium oxide
and the MOX fuel.
To help DOE's weapons plutonium disposition program
progress on a timely basis, DOE should consider proposing legislation
that would define the NRC's process. In particular, the legislation
could establish that the Environmental Impact Statement already
conducted by DOE satisfies Congressional intent for any generic
EIS's that must be conducted for NRC licensing.
Beyond this start-up role, DOE should continue to coordinate an Administration-wide effort to fulfill its responsibilities toward making the program a success and helping clear away unnecessary obstacles.