The Plutonium Genie

George Perkovich. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 3. Summer 1993.

Plutonium is one of the most dangerous materials on earth. Ten pounds are enough to make a crude nuclear weapon; one-thirty-thousandth of an ounce will cause cancer if inhaled. Plutonium’s lethality is measured in millennia, not decades or days. Its most prevalent form has a half-life of 24,000 years.

With plutonium, the odds are against humankind. If nation states continue the costly production and use of plutonium, they risk weapons proliferation, environmental devastation and human health damage. These odds should banish plutonium as too dangerous to continue being produced. Building on the international nonproliferation regime and current practices in the nuclear industry, a more comprehensive and specific regime must be constructed to manage plutonium and speed its elimination.

All forms of plutonium can be made into weapons, although some mixes of isotopes are less desirable to weapons designers. The release of plutonium into the environment poses health and environmental risks. These risks might be more tolerable if plutonium held unquestionable economic value in the foreseeable future. But no proven technology exists to generate electricity from plutonium at economically competitive costs. Countries determined to remain on the commercial nuclear path need not use plutonium; fuels made of low-enriched uranium suffice. Unlike plutonium or highly enriched uranium, these fuels are not weapons-usable. Nor do they pose comparable health, environmental and security hazards. The lodes of low-cost, low-enriched uranium accessible worldwide may run out, but not before the late 21st century, and then only if nuclear energy use increases markedly without eliciting increased supplies from either more efficient uranium handling or new reserves. Such an outcome is unlikely for economic reasons. Plutonium for long-term research and development programs will always be available in the form of spent fuel, even after the large surpluses of separated plutonium are reduced.

Plutonium has proliferated since its creation as a war child of the Manhattan Project in 1942. Twenty-two countries possess or control separated plutonium in various forms and amounts, either for military or commercial use. Roughly 1,000 metric tons of the material exist today. Approximately 260 tons of that stockpile are in deployed or surplus nuclear weapons. American and former Soviet arsenals account for almost go percent of those weapons. Of the roughly 650 tons of plutonium that exist in commercial programs, approximately 530 tons are contained in untreated spent reactor fuel, while roughly 120 tons are stored in weapons-usable form or recycled as fuel awaiting potential future use.

Of course, history hovers over any proposal to get comprehensive international control over plutonium. The ghosts of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report of 1946 and the failed Baruch plan haunt the discussion. In the 1970S, the Carter administration stumbled in its ill-conceived effort to wean the international community from plutonium. Today, however, different conditions prevail. The nuclear arms race is not accelerating as it was in the late 1940s and again in the late 1970s; rather, it is being reversed. The Cold War is not dividing and closing off countries from each other; openness and cooperation in nonproliferation matters are increasing. And unlike in the 1970s, plutonium is not seen as the millennial solution to the energy needs of America’s allies or as the salvation for the international nuclear power industry. Today, plutonium is increasingly perceived as a global problem that must be solved globally.

Availability and Hazards

Current international regulations do not prohibit the acquisition and use of plutonium for peaceful purposes under safeguards. Moreover, those nations that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—such as Israel, India and Pakistan-can acquire and use plutonium however they see fit, except where safeguards are imposed on materials and equipment imported from parties to the treaty. All states, regardless of various international guidelines on physical protection, can without sanction treat and handle plutonium according to their own standards of human health, environmental protection and security. Under these loose conditions, domestic regulation has not proved sufficiently safe in any country from which historical data is available. A few instances from American and Russian experience suggest the danger.

The Rocky Flats facility in Colorado was shut down in 1989 as a result of mismanagement and violations of environmental and worker safety standards during the period when plutonium metal was purified and manufactured into weapons cores. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state for plutonium production and chemical separation will cost an estimated $50 billion to clean up once the appropriate technology is invented.

In April 1992 an explosion at a Russian nuclear plant in Siberia caused small amounts of plutonium to leak. Radioactive hot spots may now exist in the contaminated area of 46 square miles around the Tomsk-7 military reprocessing plant 1,800 miles east of Moscow. In 1957 the Kyshtym plant exploded and blanketed 15,000 square kilometers with radioactivity, causing a still-secret number of immediate casualties and exposing at least 400,000 people to heightened radiation doses. The Rayak plutonium complex has released into a lake thirty times the amount of radioactivity released in the Chernobyl disaster, and thousands of citizens have suffered lasting damage.

The heightened potential for bankruptcy, instability, revolution or dissolution in states that currently control plutonium poses additional threats. The dissolution of the former Soviet Union and attendant fears of “loose nukes” underscore the new collective vulnerability. Since 1989, European police have arrested black marketeers selling nonweapons uranium and other nuclear materials stolen from the former Soviet Union. Ukraine and Kazakhstan have not agreed to relinquish nuclear weapons based on their soil or to sign the NPT as nonnuclear weapon states. Each possesses plutonium-laden spent fuel that is not safeguarded. Similar potential for nuclear disorder lies in India, the Korean peninsula and possibly Pakistan. Terrorist acquisition of plutonium always remains a threat.

Most studies to find safe, secure and affordable options for managing the coming glut of the material define their objective with a minimal question: What should be done with the plutonium scheduled to be extracted from American and former Soviet weapons? This limited approach neglects the hundreds of tons of nonweapons plutonium that will be coursing through a number of nation states with uneven capacities to manage it safely, securely and efficiently. Even as the United States and Russia work quickly to reduce their military stockpiles, plans must be made for a comprehensive plutonium regime that would encompass all plutonium—civilian and military.

The character and challenge of a strengthened International regime to manage plutonium will depend on the scale of production, separation, use and transportation. As such activity increases, the difficulty and expense of securing society from danger will become greater. In theory, other nations could decide unilaterally to abandon plutonium production and separation, as the United States has done. Short of a global agreement to ban commerce in and use of plutonium, at least two international decisions are vital to contain the risks posed by the material. First, the six countries that have not already done so—Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan—should commit themselves to cease production of plutonium for military purposes. This would cap their weapons programs. Second, further separation of plutonium for commercial purposes should be ended by all nations. This would halt the growing surplus, while allowing for disposal of the plutonium already on hand.

While the United States has cut off production of fissile materials for weapons and Russia has pledged to do so by the year 2000, Britain resists and the French and Chinese positions are unclear. China’s decision will be pivotal. It apparently possesses enough separated plutonium for its planned nuclear arsenal and therefore might be induced to cease further production. There is hope and some expectation that a domino effect would then halt further production in India and Pakistan, while increasing pressure on Britain and France to stop producing and separating plutonium for their nuclear arsenals. In this climate, Israel would experience internal and external pressures to reciprocate. Some Israeli decision-makers reportedly have already seen the benefits of halting plutonium production and have asked their nuclear establishment to prepare for it. Each of the declared and threshold nuclear powers has more plutonium than it could need under any viable military threat scenario.

Cessation of commercial separation is more likely as decisionmakers and analysts begin to recognize the economic and international security drawbacks of plutonium use. Although Japan and Germany have helped finance plutonium separation plants in Britain and France and constitute the major demand for their services, German electric utilities are having second thoughts due to high costs and troublesome transportation and storage. German utilities are willing to pay large penalties to escape plutonium separation contracts with Britain and France. Japan also is questioning an energy plan based on plutonium. Amid mounting evidence that plutonium breeder reactors are unreliable and uneconomical, the Japanese Science and Technology Agency is reassessing the nation’s nuclear programs. Japan’s decision was reinforced by international demonstrations against the 17,000-mile shipment of plutonium from France to Japan. Also complicating Tokyo’s calculations are its neighbors’ fears over the nuclear weapons potential signified by Japan’s stockpiling of plutonium. And within Japan an antinuclear constituency is mobilizing against still-active government plans for a plutonium economy, pressing its case on environmental, health and grounds. But the most telling cause is economic—plutonium-based production of electricity has yet to be commercially viable.

A handful of states are still bent on plutonium use—due to bureaucratic inertia, reluctance to abandon sunk costs, lack of alternative energy sources or, in some cases, ambitions for nuclear weapons capability. Russian leaders, for example, will find it difficult to override the Ministry of Atomic Energy’s ambitions to make plutonium a central element in the nation’s mix of energy sources. The Russian nuclear establishment, like its counterpart in other countries, remains emotionally attached to using plutonium, reflecting decades of work, expense and sacrifice. These feelings have overwhelmed rational analysis proving that plutonium has negative economic value and should be treated as waste—toxic fool’s gold. In India, similar attitudes have led the powerful nuclear bureaucracy to see plutonium development, currently in the research and development stage, as a status symbol and a source of economic and military independence.

Britain and France, with signed contracts for reprocessing from many countries, also retain vested interests in plutonium fuel. These countries, which separate most of the world’s civilian plutonium, each plan to bring a new reprocessing facility on-line this year, adding billions to the cost of their facilities. Operating at planned levels through the 1990s, the new plants would yield an additional 100 tons of surplus separated plutonium. Almost all of this would be for foreign consumption; Britain has no plans to “burn” plutonium in fuel, and France’s modest plan to use mixed oxide fuel remains in doubt.

How a Regime Could Operate

Once the plutonium problem has been bounded, an international regime can manage the storage and reduction of existing plutonium. Reduction can occur through direct disposal as waste, or more expensively and insecurely through irradiation in power reactors. By regulating and facilitating waste disposal and other environmental and safety matters, the international regime would go beyond current nonproliferation and industrial arrangements.

If an international plutonium regime could be based on the International Atomic Energy Agency, time and effort would be saved. Dormant provisions of the IAEA statute, if activated, authorize many of the requisite functions of a plutonium regime. The often mentioned tension between the IAEA’S role as a facilitator of nuclear energy development and as an advocate of nonproliferation need not come into play because plutonium is not necessary for nuclear power for at least a century. The IAEA could rigorously manage an international regime that seeks to phase out separated plutonium while aiding the peaceful and effective use of low-enriched uranium fuels. However, in order for the IAEA to be effective in the proposed regime, or even in an extension of its current nonproliferation role, its governors must seek to conduct more extensive and rigorous verification activities than in the past. If the IAEA governors oppose this more robust mission, an independent institution should be created.

A plutonium management regime would evolve in stages—perhaps region by region—with each stage creating confidence among participating nations that greater safety and security was being achieved, thereby allowing for further extension and oversight. Such a regime would not require countries to join all at once or to sacrifice sovereignty. The regime’s basic rules and procedures would be the product of agreement by the participating sovereign states. Over time, the regime might take on more authority, but always with the approval of the governed.

The analogy of a five-story escalator can help describe how an international plutonium regime would function. States would come in at different levels on the escalator and move to higher stages of international management, with all reaching the top floor at some distant decade. Between each major stage, a state could heighten the transparency of activities covered by the regime, thus begetting confidence. Indeed, the regime should aim to overcome the secrecy that all nuclear establishments have used to hide corruption, mismanagement and danger.

A combination of pushing and pulling forces would move states into the regime. Push could come from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund factoring in a country’s plutonium policies in decisions to offer financial assistance. Additional force could come from diplomatic pressure and public movements demanding improved environmental and security practices. States would also be pulled into the regime by example-setting practices of key nuclear powers. Moreover, an enlightened nuclear power industry could consign plutonium to research and development and concentrate instead on low-enriched uranium fuels, recognizing that plutonium’s economic and security liabilities damage the industry’s general credibility. The caretakers of the plutonium regime could even assist the development of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency. Promoting these technologies would replace the anachronistic “Atoms for Peace” quid pro quo of nuclear power promotion for nonproliferation.

At the ground floor, where the escalator begins, no safeguards or obligations would be required. All but three nuclear states—Israel, India, Pakistan—are already beyond this level. These threshold countries, which have the capability to construct and deploy nuclear weapons even if they have not openly done so, would have to forswear the export of plutonium or plutonium-related technologies to other states. With skillful outside management, each could be readily persuaded to do this, recognizing its national interest in stemming proliferation to other countries.

The five declared nuclear weapons states would enter the regime one flight up by ceasing the production and separation of plutonium for military purposes. They would then ask the threshold nuclear states to join them, in effect winning declarations that subsequent plutonium production and separation in India and Israel—the two key cases—would not be for military purposes. Allowance would be made for unsafeguarded remanufacturing and other handling of plutonium by declared or undeclared military programs whose stockpiles were obtained prior to the cutoff.

The second floor of the regime would then extend safeguards to all plutonium stockpiles and facilities outside of the narrowly circumscribed military sphere. In addition, all states, starting with the United States and Russia, would be required to declare and exchange full data on their complete inventories of separated plutonium, including their military programs. Such disclosure requirements and safeguards have already been put in place by all nonnuclear weapons states in the NPT, as well as Brazil and Argentina, although inventory data is closely held by the IAEA. The aim is to end discrimination and apply the same rules to the civilian programs of the five declared nuclear powers and to the threshold powers. Their avoidance of comprehensive safeguards was accepted in the past because the nuclear states were producing and separating such massive quantities of plutonium for military purposes that it would make little difference to safeguard their civilian activities.

Security establishments would lack valid justification to refuse disclosure and safeguards once plutonium is stopped for military purposes and the nuclear arms race is capped. The five nuclear powers also recognize the growing threat that proliferation and mismanaged nuclear facilities pose to their security. This threat should heighten their incentives to construct a strong plutonium regime. If political interests in the declared and threshold nuclear weapons states require a closer measure of control, they could devise bilateral or narrow multilateral safeguards in coordination and consistency with the broader international regime.

The American bureaucracy currently resists bilateral and international safeguards on plutonium because it does not want to foreclose military options to reuse plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons, and because it dislikes the inconvenience of accommodating international inspectors. Neither position is defensible. Japan and Germany, along with 147 other nonnuclear weapon states, accept international inspectors and safeguards at all their nuclear facilities. Russian leaders have expressed the willingness to do the same. The United States (along with China, Britain, France, India, Israel and Pakistan) lack valid arguments to be excepted from this norm. Furthermore, the plutonium scheduled to be removed pursuant to the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the reciprocal withdrawals of tactical nuclear weapons and the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is not needed for any foreseeable military contingency. If, after START II were implemented, the United States and Russia became reluctant to undertake further nuclear reductions for fear of relinquishing the resultant plutonium to international safeguards, an accommodation could be made. The two states could create a “national buffer stockpile” of plutonium safeguarded under bilateral agreements. Designated neither civil nor military, this material could potentially be reused for weapons, but in the meantime it would be monitored and safeguarded.

By accepting international accounting and safeguards on their own plutonium-related activities and facilities, the United States and Russia would undercut the arguments of Israel, India and Pakistan that the international nonproliferation regime is discriminatory. Moreover, the designation of a national buffer stockpile along the lines proposed for Russia and the United States could be applied to the nuclear threshold nations, allowing them to retain the deterrence power provided by their capabilities to construct nuclear weapons, but requiring them for the first time to disclose and safeguard their stockpiles. Categorizing the material as buffer (neither peaceful nor military) would allow these countries to preserve their present ambiguity and thus their political options eventually to become nuclear-free zones. Meanwhile, all their nuclear material would be monitored, even if they still refuse to join the NPT. The regime would benefit them by making it politically more difficult for their neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons material, and by heightening advanced nations’ willingness to provide technical assistance in the energy field.

At the third level, international standards for safety, health, environmental and security practices would be extended to all plutonium-related facilities, with monitoring and enforcement by the international regime. These standards and new safeguards would be extended to spent-fuel management and disposal.

Direct international management would start at the fourth stage. Facilities for storing and disposing of surplus plutonium would be managed by an international institution, preferably a refashioned and well-endowed IAEA. A fifth stage might transfer ownership and management of all facilities and their output of separated, weapons-grade fissile materials to an international agency.

The Cornerstone

Central to the creation of an international plutonium regime is giving priority to gaining control of surplus stockpiles of separated plutonium that could be most readily diverted (or reintroduced) into weapons. The difficulties lie not in the mechanics but in the politics of international storage and ultimate disposal.

Because it will take time to determine how and where to dispose of plutonium, safe and secure storage must be addressed at once. Participating states must define what constitutes surplus plutonium subject to international storage. While all plutonium inventories, whether in international storage or not, would be declared, some states would be reluctant to define surplus broadly and thereby “internationalize” greater amounts of the material, which may be a symbol of national sovereignty. A similar challenge would be to specify for what purposes and under what conditions states may withdraw surplus plutonium from international storage.

As a basic principle, all separated plutonium not needed for near-term fueling of currently operating reactors should be deemed surplus, as should plutonium withdrawn from weapons. Less obvious rules would have to be negotiated to determine how much plutonium should be allowed out of international storage for research purposes and for buffer stocks to supply current or nearly on-line reactors. The security objective of international storage will only be accomplished if all states, particularly the declared and threshold nuclear weapons states, accept verification of plutonium end use, regardless of whether such use is in reactors, storage, research and development, disposal or weapons of buffer stocks.

An international storage system, relying primarily on existing facilities, would result in Britain, France and Russia having major international storage centers, for both civil and military surpluses. The United States would host largely military stores. Likely regional stores would be China, Japan and India, which have the most extensive nuclear establishments in Asia and current or projected plutonium stockpiles. Strengthening the international regime would cost less than maintaining current and planned national storage.

Spent fuel is another category of surplus plutonium that should be internationally accounted for and monitored, although it is less problematic. Technical difficulties and costs associated with separating plutonium from spent fuel make it difficult to convert this material into nuclear weapons without detection, as the extreme case of autarkic North Korea indicates. Moreover, once further separation of plutonium is proscribed, illicit diversion and separation of spent fuel would be still more readily detectable. Under a plutonium regime, spent fuel could be accounted for and monitored at local reactor sites until it is ultimately disposed of.

Enforcement, always a problem, must be addressed in advance, although it would not be practical to predetermine sanctions. By establishing clear norms and procedures for dealing with plutonium, the regime would minimize the ambiguity that now surrounds many nuclear activities. Significant violations would alert the international community to a state’s bad intentions. An international regime could define major violations as threats to international peace and security under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which could warrant internationally sanctioned military responses.

Incentives to Join

Aside from the “pushing” and “pulling” forces to enter the plutonium regime, a major inducement for participation could be the promise of cooperation in solving the disposal problems that confront all countries. No country has yet designed and operated a permanent system for disposing of its plutonium, be it in the form of radioactive waste or separated as warhead pits or oxide. By internationalizing the disposal problem, the plutonium regime could provide a forum for scientists, engineers, environmentalists and others to examine the world’s technical capabilities and geography in order to identify the best possible options for disposing of plutonium and other radioactive materials. International management of waste and disposal would provide a powerful incentive for countries to join the plutonium regime. In return for unburdening themselves of the spent fuel, separated plutonium and other wastes that plague them, countries would be required to participate in all other stages of the regime. At the same time, the regime would have to provide compensation to the people on whose territory the waste is recommended for disposal. The politics would be difficult and the price high, but not compared to the alternatives.

Given the technical nature of this problem and the narrow time horizon of political leaders, the impetus to create an effective international regime for controlling and disposing of plutonium must come from those closest to the problem, the small circle of IAEA Consultants and nonproliferation specialists. These specialists, working in conjunction with nongovernmental arms control and environmental organizations, must keep the need for comprehensive management of plutonium on the agenda. Plutonium policy will become increasingly susceptible to influence by arms control and environmental nongovernmental organizations as the dangers mount and the material’s economic viability drops. If political leaders choose to work in harness with these people progress can be rapid.