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Plutonium: rising terror threat

The biggest threat facing the United States - and the world - is the spread of nuclear material to rogue states and terrorists. So say terrorism experts. Both major American presidential candidates concurred in last week's televised debate.

So why is the US moving plutonium from military to less secure civilian control? And why, critics ask, is it embarking on research programs that teach other nations how to use plutonium in nuclear power plants after a quarter-century of opposing such moves? That's what Tom Clements wants to know.

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Lurking beside major highways that cut through the heart of France, Mr. Clements and other antinuclear activists from Greenpeace usually watch for unmarked white trucks carrying plutonium-based fuel to French nuclear power plants. Their aim is to dramatize how easily terrorists could spot the trucks and steal their contents. This week, however, they hope to track more dangerous quarry: a convoy laden with about 275 pounds of plutonium oxide shipped from the US. Unlike nuclear fuel for power plants, which terrorists would have to convert to make a bomb, this plutonium is weapons grade - enough dark, coarse-grained powder that could be used immediately to make 15 to 20 atom bombs the size of the one dropped on Nagasaki in World War II.

Knowing terrorists are seeking nuclear material, nations have made strides to secure bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). But they have paid far less attention to an alternative: plutonium.

The US shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to France, its first overseas, is not only a security threat but also clouds America's nonproliferation message, critics say. Moreover, it focuses attention on plutonium from another source - nuclear power plants. This "separated" plutonium can be converted into a weapon and poses a threat comparable to HEU, most experts say.

"The big risk we face with separated plutonium is from theft by terrorists at a factory making reactor fuel - maybe an inside job," says David Albright, a researcher at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington think tank. "You always have to worry about the physical protection of plutonium. Nations always tell you their protection is good. But it may not be enough." Consider:

• The world is swimming in plutonium. Although military stockpiles have stabilized, the amount of civilian-held plutonium has doubled in the past 13 years, says a new ISIS report. At the end of 2003, 14 nations' civilian reactors held 235 metric tons of the most dangerous variety in terms of a terrorist threat - separated plutonium. That's enough material to fashion some 40,000 Nagasaki-sized weapons; the amount is growing by five to 10 tons a year.

• France annually converts tons of this plutonium to a mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which is trucked to its nuclear power plants. Despite its "reactor grade" label, MOX could make an effective bomb - as a US test in 1962 revealed. Even if a weapon "fizzled" because its plutonium was only reactor-grade, it would still yield a one-kiloton explosion that would "rip the heart out of a city," says Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

• While it's far simpler to make a bomb from HEU, it's conceivable that terrorists could build a plutonium-based device with expert help, observers say. Just 15 pounds of the material, a baseball-sized chunk, would be enough to wipe out a large portion of a major city. Last month, Kyrgyz security agents arrested a man trying to sell 60 small containers of plutonium.

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The US has carefully protected the onetime shipment of plutonium to France, counters Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy. "There are efforts and procedures in place we're not going to discuss publicly."

By developing new technology to reprocess the plutonium in nuclear fuel, the US can boost its energy independence and reduce the volume of nuclear waste, the administration argues. It contends this could make unnecessary a second nuclear-waste repository beyond Yucca Mountain.

"It is our hope that this technology will ... provide the benefits of recycling spent fuel without increasing proliferation risks," Kyle McSlarrow, deputy secretary of Energy, told Congress in July.

Two forms, one menace

Plutonium is created when uranium fuel is irradiated within a nuclear reactor. Reprocessing extracts the plutonium from spent fuel, which may then be fabricated into more fuel for reactors. Civilian plutonium comes in two basic varieties: the separated plutonium and irradiated plutonium, which is embedded within spent nuclear fuel rods.

Ironically, irradiated plutonium is less worrisome because it is so radioactive. Terrorists typically wouldn't be able to handle spent rods without fatal consequences, though desperadoes could steal it for use in a dirty bomb. But separated plutonium could be diverted within a plant or stolen en route and readily transformed back into metal plutonium suitable for bombs, nonproliferation experts say.

The arrival in France Wednesday of US weapons-grade plutonium - destined for fabrication into commercial reactor fuel - highlights these concerns.

During the 1960s, it was thought that future shortages of uranium would make it economical to extract plutonium from reactor waste and use it for fuel. Some nations forged ahead, Britain, France, Japan, and the Soviet Union among them, despite the higher cost of reprocessing. So did the US - until India in 1974 conducted a "peaceful nuclear explosion" using a device created with plutonium culled from a research reactor.

Recognizing the danger of nuclear proliferation, presidents Ford and Carter discouraged the use of plutonium as a fuel in civilian reactors. The US government withdrew its support for a "plutonium economy," throttling back America's use of plutonium as reactor fuel.

So while the US military has plenty of weapons-grade plutonium, America has refused to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium for civilian use. Therefore, the US does not have a growing stockpile of civilian plutonium - which some would say is a huge blessing, given the costs involved in disposing of it.

Even so, the idea of using plutonium for civilian use gained a toehold during the Clinton administration. The US and Russia in 2000 signed a disarmament treaty to dispose of "excess" military plutonium by following a dual-track approach. Some of the 34 metric tons of military plutonium from each country would be mixed with nuclear waste and put into canisters for burial - while the rest would be made into MOX for use in the US and Russia.

Russia had resisted the burial option, declaring plutonium a valuable resource. In January 2002, the Bush administration dropped the idea, too. Instead, Energy secretary Spencer Abraham announced all 34 tons of excess US weapons plutonium would be made into MOX for power plants.

"The US and Russia have agreed to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons plutonium through the Russians' preferred method of conversion to MOX," says Mr. Wilkes, whose agency oversees the joint weapons-to-MOX program. "We need the Russians on board."

The US plan calls for France to create a limited amount of reactor fuel from the weapons-grade plutonium and then ship it back to South Carolina's Catawba nuclear-power plant for a test next spring. After that, the plan is for MOX to be made on US soil at a new $2.2 billion fabrication plant in South Carolina. The facility is to be completed by 2008 by a US subsidiary of Areva, the French company that's supplying the MOX to Catawba.

The plan faces some obstacles. Environmentalists have filed suit in a bid to block the use of MOX fuel in the Catawba plant. A bigger obstacle is a dispute between Russia and the US over who would be liable in case of an accident or terrorist act involving US contractors working in Russia on the new MOX plant there. Absent an agreement, the whole plan will grind to a halt, analysts say.

Murky policy

Officially, the US still discourages other nations from using plutonium-based fuels in civilian reactors. But shipping plutonium to France to make MOX undercuts any US efforts to discourage the likes of Iran and North Korea from reprocessing spent reactor fuel, several experts say.

Even for disarmament purposes, the use of MOX in US power plants "sets a terrible example for the world" when burying the material is still an alternative, says Paul Leventhal, head of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington. "You don't want to in any way legitimate the use of bomb-grade fuels to generate electricity - because you can do that with low-grade fuels. So why allow it?"

The US has in recent years begun promoting nuclear fuel-reprocessing technology for extracting plutonium, experts note. In May 2001, the Bush administration's new National Energy Policy emphasized the use of nuclear power to meet energy needs. At the same time, it also endorsed and promoted reconsideration of "advanced reprocessing" of spent reactor fuel. Despite the administration's hopes, this futuristic material would not significantly decrease terrorists' ability to use it to make a bomb, critics say.

"The Bush administration has explicitly changed its policies," says Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the global security program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It is actively promoting recycling spent fuel at home and abroad."

The US has spearheaded the Generation IV International Forum with some 10 nations to develop new generation nuclear power plants. At least three of the five reactor designs under consideration would use recycled plutonium, Dr. Lyman says.

The US has also contracted with South Korea and other nations to work on the International Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, which includes new technologies for recycling plutonium. South Korea revealed last month that in 1982 some of its civilian researchers, without permission, had separated plutonium.

From power to bombs?

The revelation caused an uproar among nonproliferation experts, who worry about civilian programs developing reprocessing expertise that can lead to weapons development. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei called the experiments "of serious concern."

Meanwhile, Japan has a new reprocessing plant seeking certification. India wants to expand its reprocessing capacity. China has said it, too, wants to reprocess for civilian purposes.

"Plutonium production is a machine that just won't stop," says Dr. Spector of the Monterey Institute. "The nuclear establishment is so powerful in some countries, it just drives forward by its own inertia."

The spread of reprocessing technology, combined with the move to use MOX fuel in US reactors, comes at a time when the world is desperate to corral loose nuclear material before terrorists can get it.

Plutonium is especially hard to track. When it's being reprocessed or fabricated, it sticks to nearly everything it comes in contact with. Last year, for example, international nuclear inspectors reported that the Tokaimura nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant north of Tokyo could not account for some of its plutonium - enough to make 25 nuclear weapons. Similarly, France's COGEMA Cadarache plant where the US is shipping its excess military plutonium, was found by EURATOM in 2002 to have "an unacceptable amount of material unaccounted for," according to a recent report in Nuclear Fuel, a trade publication.

"It's like seeing an accident in the future and pressing on the accelerator.," says Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "We're all human, and we make mistakes in government. But on this we should just cease and desist."