Since the dawn of the thermonuclear age the United States government has invested huge amounts of effort and treasure to create tons of the most deadly substance on earth: plutonium.
But the end of the cold war has made thousands of nuclear weapons and their plutonium pits surplus material. Now Washington is proposing to destroy much of the US plutonium stockpile in a process that could be almost as complex and controversial as the material's production.
Simply leaving the estimated 50 tons of excess plutonium in storage might be the simplest solution to the problem, admit administration officials. Such a cache would be a tempting target for terrorists, however, and could raise Russian suspicions about future US nuclear plans.
That might make Russia think twice about destroying its own excess plutonium. "We want to make sure the Russians dispose of their plutonium in a way we feel comfortable with," says an administration official.
The Department of Energy's preferred alternative for plutonium, released yesterday, takes a two-pronged approach to disposal of the fissile material.
About one-third of excess US plutonium would be fused into immobile glass or ceramic blocks - "vitrified" - under DOE plans. (In its natural state, plutonium is both radioactive and toxic. In some forms, it can be flammable.) These stable blocks would then be stored in a permanent repository somewhere, deep underground.
The bulk of the plutonium, however, would be set aside to burn as fuel in conventional nuclear power plants. Such use would require the plutonium to be mixed with uranium, forming a fuel substance known as MOX. Reportedly, 16 civilian US utilities have expressed interest in receiving government-subsidized MOX fuel.
Energy Department officials rejected dozens of other destruction approaches before deciding on their alternatives. Launching plutonium into the reaches of space, for instance, was deemed too risky. Environmental groups raised strong objections to the idea that plutonium be buried on the ocean floor.
But the proposal to make use of plutonium in power reactors is sure to be controversial. The diversion of such weapons-usable material into the US civilian economy, even in a MOX form, is something that many nuclear activists have argued against for decades.
"This is a very bad decision. It's time to close the door to plutonium in the commercial sector," argues Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
The real problem, both sides of this argument admit, is Russia. The overriding goal of US plutonium policy is to convince Russian leaders to curb their own program, which still produces the dangerous material.
Russians have long been loath to simply throw their plutonium away. They've invested too many rubles in the program over the decades, they say - and thus need to extract some use for the material in the form of power plant energy.
In essence, DOE's proposal means the administration has decided that joining Russia is the best way to influence the Kremlin's plutonium decision-making. Japan, France, and some other industrial nations have long made use of plutonium in civilian reactors, supporters of the proposal point out. In the face of this reality, the US two-track disposal plan now "puts us in a strong position" to influence the Russian plutonium program, argues Spurgeon Keeney, president of the Arms Control Association and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that produced the groundwork for DOE's proposal.
FURTHERMORE, both vitrified plutonium and MOX fuel are virtually proliferation-proof, says Mr. Keeney. It would be "beyond the practical capability" of terrorists to extract weapons-usable material from such plutonium forms, he says.
Critics claim that this chain of logic does not take into account realities of the Russian economy. Right now the Russian plutonium industry has everything but a plant to produce MOX fuel, notes Mr. Makhijani. If the US encourages the production of such a plant, a never-ending cycle will begin to keep Russian plutonium scientists employed. "Once the Russians set up a MOX plant they will never stop plutonium production. They just need the jobs," he says.
And pure plutonium could be a terrorist's dream, and a National Security Council nightmare. All it takes to fashion a crude nuclear device is some 15 pounds of the dangerous fissile material, according to experts.
The US already has a facility capable of plutonium vitrification in South Carolina. If DOE's proposal becomes reality the US will likely have to build a MOX fabrication plant, however - an effort that could cost $1 billion or more. Nuclear activists are already planning anti-plutonium campaigns for communities near civilian plants. The US government might ship MOX to Canada for use in Canadian reactors if local opposition in the US becomes too intense, according to administration documents.