RUSSIAN nuclear warheads could become United States-built nuclear power stations along the Trans-Siberian Railway if a proposal by an academic at Boston University is taken up.
This would reduce the danger that the material in Russia's demobilized nuclear weapons could be diverted to other nations. It also would use the plutonium and uranium for beneficial purposes.
``It's complicated to decide what to do with plutonium,'' says David Finch, a deputy director at Boston University's Defense Technology Conversion Center. ``We say burn it in nuclear reactors and get energy from it. All other ways are very expensive. This is the only method [where] we get some sort of payback. We get electrical power.''
The US is becoming less dependent on nuclear energy and no new nuclear power plants are being constructed here. But the Center proposes building new plants as fast as possible in the former Soviet Union. ``The economic development in China and Central Europe needs cheap electrical power and the answer is nuclear power,'' he says.
It costs $1 billion to $2 billion to build one nuclear power station that produces power for 40 to 60 years, he says. The idea is to get US companies to collaborate with Russia in building these plants, earning a return from the sale of electricity.
The Defense Technology Conversion Center is exploring possibilities for financing a $1 million to $3 million feasibility study for the formation of a ``Russian-American Nuclear Energy Consortium.''
One possible source would be Nunn-Lugar funds, money set aside by the US government to decrease the threat of war and help countries of the former Soviet Union dismantle their nuclear weapons arsenal and launching platforms. However, this year's Nunn-Lugar funds already have been allocated.
Another possible source of funding would be companies involved in the US nuclear industry. Finch has talked with Westinghouse Corporation and is scheduled to talk to Raytheon Corporation tomorrow.
Mr. Finch discards alternative solutions for handling plutonium and highly enriched uranium from nuclear weapons because of various problems:
* Storing radioactive plutonium to the point where it is no longer toxic takes thousands of years. The material requires constant supervision because of the risks of theft for use in nuclear weapons and leakage that would contaminate the environment.
* Storing plutonium and uranium after vitrification - fusing them with glass - is expensive.
* Loading the material onto rockets and shooting it to the far side of the moon, as one proposal suggests, also would be expensive. ``I'm not sure we should make space our dumping ground,'' Finch says.
One difficulty, Finch adds, is that the US government has not decided what to do with the plutonium contained in its own nuclear weapons, which it is dismantling under an agreement with the former Soviet Union, which was accepted by Russia. Russia would not want the US to store its plutonium while the new republic had to burn it up in reactors. ``What is fair for the goose is fair for the gander,'' Finch says.
As more and more nuclear weapons are dismantled, taking care of the toxic substances is becoming pressing. ``We now have plutonium for 600 reactor years,'' Finch says. One reactor year is one reactor operating for one year.
``The longer you wait, the longer you have plutonium laying around and then there's a risk of people stealing it or of proliferation,'' Finch says.
Iraq, Libya, Algeria, North Korea, and South Korea are all allegedly trying to acquire nuclear weapons for national security or for regional dominance.
``There are tens of thousands of nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union and that's a proliferation risk,'' Finch says. Many of them are unemployed or living on a meager pension. Some third-world countries might entertain the idea of hiring them for their nuclear weapons programs. The Defense Technology Conversion Center has held workshops in Moscow and this country to give nuclear scientists suggestions for peaceful uses for their expertise.