Bad science: Russian objections to US plutonium proposal not a reason to keep MOX

April 21, 2016 | 11:19 am
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

President Putin recently made some alarming statements about U.S. plans to cancel the current American approach to disposing of excess plutonium. His comments are important because the United States and Russia have an agreement to each dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium generated by the two countries’ nuclear weapons programs. The Russian president suggested that the approach proposed by the Obama administration, to dilute the plutonium and dispose of it in a geological repository, was unsatisfactory and could damage U.S.-Russian relations.

A Russian spokesman elaborated on Russia’s objections to the proposed “dilute and dispose” approach, arguing that the “only way to irreversibly turn plutonium into a material not usable in a nuclear weapon is by changing its isotope composition. Any chemical method is reversible.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, the lead proponent of the MOX program

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lead proponent of the MOX program

U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who oppose the Obama administration’s new plan because of their staunch support for the old plan–to complete construction of an enormously expensive factory in their state to incorporate the plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel — seized on Russia’s objections as a reason to stick with the MOX approach.

However, the argument provided by the Russians to oppose the new plan does not hold up to scrutiny. As explained by my colleague Dr. Edwin Lyman and Dr. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University in this memo, changing the isotopic composition of the plutonium would not render either Russia or the United States incapable of using the material in nuclear weapons should they decide to do so. Other factors, including prompt burial in an underground repository and international monitoring, will be far more important to keeping us all safe.

Nevertheless, the memo describes a relatively straightforward solution to Russia’s concern: mixing the U.S. plutonium with reactor-grade plutonium imported from the United Kingdom or Japan, which both also happen to be looking for a disposal path for their excess plutonium.

While more complicated that simple dilution and disposal, this option would still be cheaper than the MOX plan. So supporters of the MOX program shouldn’t use this Russian red herring as a reason to keep their pork project alive.

See the memo for a more detailed explanation, and a wealth of footnotes. For an alternative use for the partially completed MOX plant in South Carolina, see our proposal to turn it into a a nuclear security training center of excellence.