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Plutonium Security Risks Given Short Shrift at Summit, Experts Say

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Apr. 13) -A portion of the still-unfinished mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, shown under construction in 2007. Some experts have expressed concern that MOX fuel made with processed plutonium and uranium could be be converted into nuclear-weapon material (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). (Apr. 13) -A portion of the still-unfinished mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, shown under construction in 2007. Some experts have expressed concern that MOX fuel made with processed plutonium and uranium could be be converted into nuclear-weapon material (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- Fears that terrorists could acquire enough highly enriched uranium to create a nuclear weapon have appeared to dominate much of the action at this week’s nuclear security summit in Washington (see GSN, April 12).

Ukraine announced yesterday it would give up its entire stock of weapon-grade uranium, while Canada said it would return spent HEU fuel to the United States. Washington and Ottawa also today pledged to help convert a Mexican reactor to use a more proliferation-resistant form of uranium.

That focus, though, threatens to overshadow the dangers posed by plutonium that is stored or used in the civilian sector, a situation that is projected to become more widespread even as HEU use is curtailed, said former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.

Evans spoke yesterday in Washington at a nonproliferation conference organized by the Fissile Materials Working Group in parallel with the Obama administration’s nuclear summit. He called for more attention to the challenges posed by separated plutonium, which is being increasingly produced in the nuclear energy sectors of nations such as France, Japan and South Korea.

Separated plutonium that could be used in a weapon is produced when it is extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Atomic energy industries undertake this process as a way to recycle the spent material and to free up storage space at nuclear sites.

One avenue for recycling this plutonium has been to mix it with uranium to produce mixed-oxide nuclear fuel. MOX fuel is increasingly coming into vogue as nations seek to reprocess rather than store their plutonium stocks; supporters say the fuel offers nonproliferation benefits, but others remain skeptical.

"I’m just a little bit concerned on not bringing the plutonium issue into the equation at all when we do know that there’s one hell of a lot of MOX out there and an increasing enthusiasm for using it in a number of contexts," said Evans, who co-chairs the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. "If you were able to steal not particularly huge amounts of it, you could certainly pretty quickly extract from it enough plutonium to do some serious damage."

It is easier to extract weapon-ready plutonium from MOX fuel than from traditional nuclear fuel sources, according to antinuclear activists. The chance that a ship carrying the fuel could be targeted for a terrorist attack in midtransit has also been a cause for concern (see GSN, April 9).

MOX proponents have touted it as one solution to dealing with excess separated plutonium stocks that are still being held in temporary storage at atomic energy sites across the planet.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that there are 1,600 metric tons of enriched uranium in the world and 500 metric tons of separated plutonium -- enough cumulative bomb-grade material to build more than 100,000 nuclear weapons.

Experts speaking at yesterday’s conference acknowledged that the higher amounts of highly enriched uranium and the greater ease with which it could be used to create an improvised nuclear weapon make securing that material the more pressing concern.

"HEU is globally more plentiful, it’s more dispersed, easier to handle, harder to detect, easier to fabricate into a nuclear device," Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Washington conference. "The only thing going for the plutonium is that it has a smaller critical mass. But when you weigh all of these factors -- it says HEU is by far the higher risk."

Cochran added, though, that plutonium proliferation was an issue that would have to be addressed.

A concerted international push, spearheaded by the United States, has resulted in a number of civilian sector HEU reactors being converted to run on proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium in recent years (see GSN, March 30). Several nations have also over the last year shipped their HEU reserves back to the United States (see GSN, April 8).

Plutonium levels, though, appear to be on the upswing. France, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom are just some of the United States’ allies in its fight to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism that also already have or are expected to possess large quantities of civilian sector separated plutonium as a byproduct of their atomic energy activities.

The United Kingdom has 80 metric tons of separated plutonium and France has 100 metric tons of the weapon-grade material, said Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Program,

"I think that plutonium by and large, it is not being protected," he said.

Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Global Security Newswire he was surprised that Evans raised the topic considering how politically sensitive the issue is for Washington right now.

The Obama administration is thought to want to avoid alienating its key allies that produce or use separated plutonium as it seeks to build as broad a consensus as possible on the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.

"HEU is more politically practical and it’s also the more urgent," Pomper said.

He said highlighting plutonium security concerns was "tricky given the Japanese and the French."

Japan recently entered into several deals with France’s nuclear industry to buy MOX nuclear fuel made from recycled plutonium. The European nation’s large atomic sector is both a large producer and user of the mixed fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association.

"The Japanese are just now starting down this dead-end path that the French started on 25 years ago," Oelrich told GSN.

"[The French] continue to separate this stuff out faster than they are using it so the inventories are going up in France and they’re going to start this in Japan now," he said.

Under a newly revised agreement with Russia, the United States also intends to use 34 tons of plutonium from retired nuclear warheads to produce MOX fuel at a plant in South Carolina.

Nuclear Security Concerns

Despite recent progress, the international community is not likely to meet Obama’s four-year-goal for securing all loose nuclear materials if it continues along the present course, Matthew Bunn, a principal investigator at Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom, said yesterday in the latest "Securing the Bomb" report.

The report was sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and notes nuclear-security achievements that include U.S.-backed extraction of highly enriched uranium from almost 50 sites across the globe and security improvements at 210 structures that contain weapon-grade nuclear material in Russia and nearby states.

The document says, though, that causes for concern persist.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 18 separate incidents of missing or stolen quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, Bunn said. He cited civilian sector HEU stocks, Russian nuclear security, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program as particular problem areas.

"We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the pace of cooperation has accelerated," said former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. "We need worldwide understanding of the threat, the scope and urgency of the essential work, as well as clear goals and accountability for progress," he said in a prepared statement.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is most vulnerable to extremists, according to the report. An executive summary of the document states Islamabad faces "immense threats … from nuclear insiders with extremist sympathies, al-Qaeda or Taliban outsider attacks and a weak state."

At the summit yesterday, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, dismissed the report’s contention, according to Agence France-Presse.

"We are confident that our system is second to none. It’s world class," said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who attended the summit with Gilani. "Fortunately there has been no incident."

The report recommends a series of steps to help achieve the four-year security goal. Recommended actions include consolidating fissile materials and nuclear weapons at fewer, secured facilities and improving safeguards at a greater number of sites in more nations.

Nations must enact and enforce security rules, while a workable worldwide regime is also necessary, the report says.

The effort will also require strong leadership and additional U.S. funding, according to Bunn. The report notes that international nuclear security efforts receive a very small amount of funding within the overall budgets of the Defense, Energy and State departments.

"The challenge is large and complex, but it is a finite task; it is doable," Bunn said in the release. "Our biggest obstacle is not complexity; it’s complacency."

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

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