The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is studying options for easing security regulations for the transportation of plutonium used in the civilian sector, the New York Times reported.
Plutonium is classified as a "special nuclear material," which is government vernacular for warhead material. However, the coming conversion of large amounts of Cold War-era plutonium warhead cores into atomic energy material for use in civilian power plants has led NRC officials to search for options to make the commercial transportation of such material easier to carry out.
Currently, if the amount of plutonium meets a certain size threshold and is a "Category 1" material, the law requires it be transported only in specifically configured transport vehicles with accompanying physical safeguards not unlike those used to move around atomic warheads.
While anti-nuclear organizations applaud the planned elimination of extra fissile material under a Russia-U.S. nuclear nonproliferation accord, some advocates object to the conversion of warhead-grade material into reactor fuel on the grounds the converted substance could still be seized by nonstate actors looking to develop a weapon.
Plutonium in reactor fuel form is ceramic, making it substantially less desirable to potential warhead developers than plutonium in its metal form, according to NRC staff documents acquired under open record laws by the Union of Concerned Scientists. On these grounds, commission officials are urging pursuing a "material attractiveness approach."
Plutonium converted into individual fuel assemblies for use in atomic energy plants is very heavy -- approximately 1,100 to 1,320 pounds -- making it difficult for anyone to quickly seize and run away with, according to NRC documents.
However, the process for converting plutonium prepared for use in a reactor to a more pure form suitable for a warhead is "relatively simple chemistry," argues Union of Concerned Scientists physicist Edwin Lyman. He contends that a dedicated enough actor might seek to explode a fuel assembly and then seize the pieces to build a weapon.
Lyman opposes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission moving to ease regulations for the transportation of plutonium reactor fuel.
The commission has authorized its staff to prepare new regulations for plutonium transportation though not without some reservations. NRC commissioner William Magwood was quoted by the Times as saying, "this subject has not yet matured to the stage where the commission should consider a change in current policy."