Plutonium -- the proliferation issue to discuss
DELEGATES of the 130 member nations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) began meeting in Geneva this Tuesday for a month-long review of the treaty. But the matter that should be most on their minds is the one farthest from their deliberations -- plutonium. Plutonium: the original ``man-made'' element; the stuff of the first atomic test and of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki; then a waste product of civilian nuclear reactors and now the preferred fuel of the future of the nuclear power industry.Skip to next paragraph
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Each year, some 100,000 pounds of plutonium are being discharged as waste in the spent fuel of nuclear power plants throughout the world. Industry wants to recover the plutonium and use it to supplement fresh reactor fuel. In this way, supplies of nonexplosive uranium fuel can be conserved and the world's uranium resource can be extended.
The problem is that plutonium, once separated from spent fuel, becomes an explosive of which less than 15 pounds is needed to build an atomic bomb.
The amounts of explosive plutonium to be brought into existence for use in civil programs are staggering. Within the next decade, explosive plutonium for civilian applications will eclipse the 200 tons that the superpowers now use in weapons. By the year 2000, some 3 million pounds of plutonium will have been produced in spent fuel -- the equivalent of about 200,000 nuclear weapons compared with the 50,000 now deployed by the superpowers -- of which nearly a million pounds may be separated into explosiv e form.
Why all this plutonium? Is it needed? Can it be monitored and controlled down to the relatively few pounds that, if diverted by nations or stolen by terrorists, can be turned into atomic bombs? Similar questions need to be asked regarding the other nuclear explosive material, highly enriched uranium, the stuff of the Hiroshima bomb, which is produced in smaller but significant quantities to fuel many research reactors throughout the world.
These questions go to the heart of mankind's need to control the atom or to be controlled and destroyed by it. They should be high on the agenda of the NPT Review Conference. Yet, by all indications they will receive scant attention at a conference preoccupied with protests about unfulfilled treaty commitments by the superpowers to curb their arms race and by nuclear suppliers to provide all the nuclear assistance demanded by treaty states.
There are a number of factors behind this bizarre neglect of the proliferation dangers of explosive plutonium and uranium.
The treaty itself is blind to the weapons potential of these materials so long as they are dedicated to peaceful purposes and subject to a system of audits and inspections known as ``safeguards'' administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The treaty is crafted to prohibit the manufacture of nuclear devices, not the materials needed to make them explode. By making explosions and the acquisition of explosive devices the basic measure of proliferation, the treaty permits nations to acquire the technology and materials required for bombmaking, short of actual fabrication of devices.