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A freeze on plutonium

The Reagan administration has quietly adopted a policy that could move the world another dangerous step toward nuclear blackmail or annihilation. The administration apparently intends to give blanket approval for other countries to extract plutonium -- the raw material for nuclear bombs -- from nuclear materials supplied by the United States.

Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium, called it ''fiendishly toxic.'' Certainly it is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. And formed into a sphere and surrounded by a jacket of high explosives, it is a crude nuclear bomb.

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Because of its toxicity, plutonium is handled only in ''glove boxes,'' much like incubators used for premature babies, with independent air supplies and highly efficient filtration systems. Because of its weapons potential, it is kept under rigid security.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief, you should know this: despite its dangers, plutonium may soon be widely used as a fuel for nuclear power reactors. Several countries are even working to develop the breeder reactor, which produces more plutonium than it uses. And the administration's new policy will further promote the production and use of plutonium as a reactor fuel.

If separated plutonium is adopted as a fuel for nuclear reactors, tons of this dangerous material will move each year in international commerce. And with each transaction the risk of diversion or theft for weapons-building will grow. We will have created an international market in the raw material for global annihilation.

For almost forty years, the world has lived on the edge of a nuclear nightmare -- a nuclear war between the superpowers. Today, we have an equally grave danger -- the spread of nuclear weapons to nations that do not now possess them, or even to terrorist groups.

Nuclear weapons were, at one time, beyond the reach of these groups. It took armies of scientists working with ultra-secret technologies to build the first nuclear bombs. Today, a few individuals who know some basic physics and engineering can build a crude weapon -- comparable in explosive yield to the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. A bomb this small would not need rockets or bombers; the trunk of a car could readily serve as its ''delivery system.''

Technical barriers to weapons development have almost disappeared. The major hurdle to weapons production is obtaining the 11 to 20 pounds of plutonium needed to build a crude bomb. If that obstacle also disappears, we may soon live under a nuclear reign of terror, threatened by nuclear blackmailers.

To prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, we must make plutonium as difficult to obtain, and as uneconomic to use, as possible. This will require three fundamental changes in international nuclear policy.

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First, we must halt the further production of separated plutonium - for both military and civilian purposes. Such a ''freeze'' should not be unilateral; rather the US, the Soviet Union, and all other plutonium-producing nations should enter into a multilateral agreement to halt their plutonium production. This agreement could be verified with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agency responsible for administering the safeguards currently applied to many civilian nuclear activities worldwide.

By freezing the world plutonium inventory at current levels, this agreement would limit the availability of plutonium and thus the risk that a country or terrorist group could obtain enough plutonium, through theft or diversion, to build nuclear weapons. Yet, a ''plutonium freeze'' would do more than make it difficult for non-nuclear weapons states and terrorists to join the nuclear club. It would also have a profound impact on the arms race between the superpowers. Once current stockpiles of plutonium were exhausted, no new nuclear weapons could be produced.

Thus, a freeze on plutonium production actually offers the twin benefits of promoting strategic arms control and preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Second, nuclear supplier nations must agree not to export the technology to produce plutonium, such as spent-fuel reprocessing and breeder reactors. Halting the export of this technology will ensure that nations, such as Libya will not circumvent an international freeze on plutonium production.

Finally, all the nations of the world -- nuclear suppliers and consumers alike -- should supplement the first two agreements by rejecting the commercial use of separated plutonium as a nuclear power reactor fuel. In return, nuclear supplier nations should make available abundant and secure supplies of natural and low-enriched uranium fuel, materials not directly weapons-usable.

Not only does the use of plutonium in civilian nuclear power reactors pose serious proliferation risks, it also is economically unjustifiable. Only if the price of uranium increased eight-fold could separated plutonium become an economically attractive reactor fuel. In addition, current supplies of uranium will satisfy nuclear power requirements far into the next century.

Although several nations, including Japan and members of the European Economic Community, believe their energy security depends on the eventual use of plutonium fuel, their national security may rest on avoiding such use. Indeed, risks of nuclear terrorism and proliferation created by the greater use and availability of plutonium would jeopardize the security of all nations. Any short-term interest in using separated plutonium for fuel cannot outweigh the longer-term interest of the world in avoiding nuclear annihilation.

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