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The US Should Cooperate With Russia on Plutonium

Antinuclear groups opposed to converting excess warhead material are misguided

If you do not yet believe that the future of nuclear power in the United States is escalating into a major issue, take a look at the fierce challenge to the Clinton administration's policy on solving the problem of keeping weapons-grade plutonium out of the wrong hands.

The challenge has come from antinuclear groups who oppose the administration's decision to consider converting more than 50 tons of excess warhead plutonium into reactor fuel to be burned at nuclear power plants. They see it as an unwarranted retreat from long-standing American policy against the use of plutonium in civilian reactors. Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace seem less concerned about securing cooperation with Russia on controlling the risks of weapons plutonium than in pursuing their own goal: the shutdown of nuclear power plants.

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Toward that end, antinuclear groups waged a campaign last year against legislation to establish a central storage facility for high-level radioactive nuclear wastes accumulating at nuclear plants around the country. Now they are hoping their allies in Congress will force the administration to drop plans to use plutonium in civilian reactors. If that happens, an opportunity for reaching a comprehensive strategy of cooperation with Russia on getting rid of surplus military plutonium will be lost.

The top nonproliferation priority is to prevent nuclear anarchy by securing and disposing of excess plutonium. To do so requires the US to take the lead in converting military plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants, thereby encouraging Russia to do the same. That may require US financial assistance to Russia to help that country build a facility for converting plutonium.

The rationale for burning plutonium is partly technical. An expert panel on the National Academy of Sciences, headed by Harvard professor John Holdren, recently concluded that mixing plutonium with uranium to produce mixed-oxide fuel, known as MOX fuel, and then using the MOX in nuclear plants, is both technically feasible and safe. The panel pointed out that the plutonium is totally disabled in the process and can't be reused in warheads.

Using MOX

Virtually all conventional light-water nuclear reactors in the United States can be safely modified to burn MOX fuel. Indeed, industrialized countries have considerable experience with MOX, beginning years ago with experimental use in the US and current commercial use in Western Europe, Japan, and Russia. Recently, 17 electric utilities in the US told the Department of Energy that they're interested in using MOX to meet part of their normal customer demand for electricity.

Equally important, Russia regards its plutonium as a national energy resource and is adamantly opposed to burying it as waste. That's why the Clinton administration is right to pursue a cooperative approach with Russia and why antinuclear groups are wrong to oppose it.

Our government would be remiss not to look into having Russia also sell us MOX fuel made from weapons plutonium. Russia desperately needs the hard currency to shore up its struggling market economy.

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Uranium: a good example

Granted, plutonium disposition is a complex and difficult issue. But keep in mind that the US government has an agreement with Russia to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium - another ingredient of nuclear warheads - over the next 20 years. Thanks to a contract negotiated by the Bush administration and signed by President Clinton, a number of nuclear power plants are burning reactor fuel derived from bomb-grade uranium to produce electricity. According to the US Enrichment Corporation, a Washington-based enterprise commissioned to buy weapons-grade uranium from Russia, the equivalent of 600 nuclear warheads have already been destroyed.

Anyone tempted to question the need for American help in destroying Russia's huge stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium - estimated at more than 100 tons - should consider the danger of doing nothing. Experts say a crude nuclear bomb could be constructed with less than 10 kilograms of plutonium. Security in Russia is porous at best. Between rife corruption and loose controls, especially at nuclear installations, there is a serious risk that plutonium could seep out through the black market and end up in the hands of a renegade nation such as Iraq or Libya - or even worse, a terrorist group. In fact, several hundred cases of nuclear smuggling in Russia have been investigated in the last few years.

The shocking lesson of the 20th century - experience that now seems largely forgotten - is that vast human suffering and random destruction are unnecessary. From the crisis and turmoil of the century, nations discovered that there is nothing inevitable about wars or the convulsions they sow if societies will act to counter them. Peace is possible only when governments take control of their fate.

Misguided opposition from antinuclear groups should not be allowed to dominate our consideration of the dangers of nuclear terrorism that can result if our country fails to cooperate with Russia on a plutonium destruction program - a program that can help make the planet a safe place.

* Mary L. Walker, a partner with the law firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison in San Diego, was assistant secretary for environment, safety, and health in the US Department of Energy.