Column | Reprocessing is a safe, sound nuclear option

October 24, 2013 

Since it began 20 years ago, a program established by the United States and Russia to convert surplus nuclear-weapons materials into fuel for electricity production has been a bastion of stability and security in bilateral relations that have seen relatively little of either.

Known as “megatons to megawatts,” the program has succeeded in down-blending almost 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Russia’s nuclear arms stockpile into low-enriched uranium, which was then sold to U.S. utilities for use in producing nuclear-generated electricity for millions of American homes and businesses.

Currently, half of the nuclear-generated electricity in the U.S. is derived from Soviet-era warheads that were once aimed at targets in the U.S. and other countries.

This remarkable program, which stems from a U.S.-Russia accord going back to 1993, ends next month.

It has provided a great deal of hope that further reductions in nuclear-weapons materials will ensue. And it has shown the importance of nuclear power plants in disarmament and international efforts to prevent terrorism.

It doesn’t take much highly enriched uranium — only several kilograms — to make a crude nuclear weapon.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the theft of nuclear-weapons materials from stockpiles became a serious concern. Soviet nuclear installations were poorly guarded, and some highly enriched uranium reached the black market.

Fortunately, the material was recovered before it could be sold to rogue governments or terrorist groups. But officials from the newly created Russian Federation acknowledged that more comprehensive safeguards were urgently needed.

In exchange for dollars, Russia agreed to convert the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads into low-enriched uranium that could be used as reactor fuel in U.S. nuclear power plants. Russia used some of the money to shore up security at its nuclear facilities, and U.S. officials were brought in to help in the effort.

Over the years, the U.S. has also down-blended some of its highly enriched uranium.

The challenge now is to reduce stockpiles in the United States and Russia of another nuclear-weapons material — plutonium.

Although the two countries signed a pact in 2000 requiring each to reduce its plutonium stockpile by 34 metric tons, progress has been slow.

Technology is not the problem. For years, a number of countries, including France and Great Britain, have recycled plutonium from used nuclear fuel into a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for further use in electricity production.

In fact, such recycling — also known as reprocessing — was done in the U.S. until the mid-1970s. The process is safe and effective.

Here in the U.S., a government facility to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is more than 60 percent complete, but its construction budget has been scaled down in response to cost overruns.

Never mind that there are cost overruns on virtually every large construction project in this country, and the MOX facility is no exception. Most of the components for the facility must be imported from other countries, causing an escalation in the project cost.

Anti-nuclear groups are urging the Obama administration to stop construction, maintaining it would be safer and cheaper to encase plutonium in glass logs and bury the logs in a deep-geologic repository.

But there’s a problem with this approach.

In the future, the glass logs could be recovered and the plutonium used again to make nuclear weapons; whereas once it’s been converted into MOX, the plutonium is no longer suitable for weapons.

Russia has warned that it will not proceed with implementing the plutonium accord unless the U.S. completes its MOX facility.

The surest way to tackle the problem is to move ahead slowly but surely with the MOX plant using more rigorous oversight by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Converting plutonium into a harmless fuel is precisely the way to get the job done. Sound policy can make this happen.

Edward H. Klevans is a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Penn State. Readers may write to him at ehknuc@engr.psu.edu.

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