Plutonium -- the proliferation issue to discuss

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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.

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.

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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.

The treaty provides a cloak of legitimacy for ``latent'' proliferation in the form of stockpiles and know-how that can be rapidly transformed into nuclear arsenals at a time of regional or global crisis. The treaty also contributes to the danger of theft of nuclear explosive materials by terrorists -- a danger that increases in proportion to the amounts of materials produced, trafficked, and used.

The impending widespread commercial use of nuclear explosive materials confronts the United States and the world with the most momentous decision on the application of atomic energy since the decision to drop rather than demonstrate the bomb over Japan. It is not too late to steer clear of the plutonium path.

Most commercial reprocessing of spent fuel has taken place in France and Great Britain. Although some 60 tons of civil plutonium have been separated worldwide, more than 90 per cent remains in France and Britain, while four-fifths of spent fuel from modern power plants remains unreprocessed.

The economics of processing and using plutonium is unfavorable in the extreme. Original assumptions that plutonium would be needed to augment scarce supplies of uranium have proved false. The world resource of uranium is projected to be as high as 20 million tons -- enough to provide a lifetime supply of fuel for at least 4,000 nuclear power plants compared with about 300now operating. For plutonium to become economical, uranium would have to increase in price to $150 a pound, compared with its present price of about $20.

Of greater concern, the IAEA -- long defended by nuclear advocates as having an effective safeguards system -- is now widely acknowledged to lack both the technical and political means to detect and give timely warning of diversions of nationally held explosive nuclear materials. The IAEA was never given the police authority to prevent such diversions, even though the treaty calls for application of IAEA safeguards ``with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy for peaceful uses.''

On the other hand, the IAEA is authorized by statute, but was never empowered, to assume a task it can handle: taking international custody of ``excess'' nuclear explosive materials. This includes plutonium in separated form or contained in spent fuel.

It is time that explosive plutonium and uranium were seen for what they are: unnecessary and too dangerous for world commerce. Nuclear power and research reactors can be run efficiently and effectively without them. Continued failure by the public to demand that policymakers constrain those who would make civilian fuels out of atom-bomb materials will lead inevitably to a world in which nuclear explosives and nuclear violence are commonplace. Such a world would be horrible beyond imagination. The NPT Re view Conference is the logical place to begin the move away from nuclear proliferation.

Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C., was a congressional staff observer at the 1975 NPT Review Conference and was responsible for legislation leading to enactment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.

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