SIMMERING just behind the front burners of United States foreign policy, the former Soviet Union is a dangerous place. The continued presence of an estimated 27,300 tactical and strategic nuclear weapons raises the difficult question of what to do with the tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium they contain.
These bomb-making materials are valuable fuel resources that can be used to produce electricity. The best way to get rid of them is to consume them in a nuclear reactor. Last year the US agreed in principle to buy some 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Soviet nuclear warheads over a period of 15 to 20 years.
But Congress is threatening to kill an advanced reactor capable of burning plutonium from Soviet nuclear warheads. The House recently voted to eliminate funding for liquid-metal reactor research and development. An Integral Fast Reactor only months away from completing a demonstration of its full feasibility is being abandoned after a decade of research, but there are compelling reasons for the Senate to restore funding.
Foremost is the danger of bomb-grade plutonium. The amount of it now on hand in the former Soviet Union is estimated to be some 115 million to 130 million metric tons in nuclear weapons stockpiles in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
Storage is one option, but it offers no economic benefit and poses the threat of continued availability of the material for weapons use.
As with highly enriched uranium, plutonium is a prodigious energy source. When fissioned in a weapon, the atoms in a kilogram of plutonium have the energy equivalent of 17,500 tons of high explosives.
Those same plutonium atoms, splitting more slowly for three years in a liquid metal reactor, produce sufficient steam to generate about 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to meet the annual needs of 1,000 American households.
A metric ton would generate about 10 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, valued in the millions of dollars.
The Russians want to compete on the world market. Their need for hard currency could provide an opportunity for plutonium exports and aid the ailing Russian economy.
Security questions will inevitably arise whenever the issue is transporting plutonium. Yet maintaining plutonium indefinitely at temporary storage sites in the former Soviet Union poses unacceptable risks. Storage at widely scattered sites is, to put it mildly, a recipe for trouble in the years ahead.
Now is the time to reach an agreement with the Russians on plutonium sales. A Senate vote to restore funding for the liquid metal reactor would show the way. Demonstrating that the reactor can produce electricity from a plutonium weapon would be a major peace dividend.