MOX Eludes Mention at Evian G-8 Summit

Publish date: June 6, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Of all the nuclear issues that came under the scrutiny of the Russian and American governments during last weekend’s Group of Eight industrialised nations, or G-8, summit in Evian, France, one important and urgent issue was almost entirely absent from the agenda: plutonium disposition through MOX fuel—an oversight some say could lead to the scrapping of the entire programme by late July.

Member states did point out in the G8’s Senior Officials Group Annual Report that “significant progress can be noted in the negotiations on international support for Russia’s plutonium disposition programmes, including increased pledges and substantial agreement on concepts for effective programmes management and oversight,” the statement read. “We look forward to completion of these negotiations.”

But no specific mention of MOX—the primary future method of plutonium disposition—was made by the leaders. The MOX programme, however, is already a year behind schedule and, insiders say, bickering over management, liability and safety regulations continues. The plutonium disposition scheme, which is meant to destroy 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium in Russia and the United States equally, involves mixing weapons-grade plutonium and uranium oxides to create a nuclear fuel called MOX, or mixed oxide fuel. The fuel will then be burnt, in parallel progress, in specially retrofitted conventional reactors—like Russia’s VVER-1000s. The plan also requires the construction of parallel MOX fabrication plants in both the United States and Russia.

The arrangement has been controversial since it was formally announced in 1997, involving, as it does, expensively revamped reactors and an untested fuel. Environmentalists have also pointed out that spent MOX fuel still contains weapons-usable plutonium, which, with the right technology, could still be separated out and used in nuclear weapons—thus defeating the very purpose of the programme.

Other concerns raised by environmentalists include that the MOX scheme involves more processing and transportation, and therefore higher risks of plutonium theft, as well as arguments that using MOX in reactors will increase safety risks. Environmentalists and others experts have also pointed out that while the US supports the idea of also using the MOX method to get rid of their stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium separated from commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, their example will embolden other countries to separate their own weapons-usable plutonium through additional reprocessing—thus leading to a closed plutonium cycle.

Several officials and analysts in Washington and Moscow, who had spoken to Bellona Web prior to the summit, predicted a far more robust G-8 endorsement of plutonium disposition efforts, especially MOX programme—but their prognosis did not come true. However, according to one Russian official, a fuller mention of the programme was needed because, unless a crucial 1998 technical agreement between Russia and the US is extended within the next several weeks, the project will grind to a halt.

“The MOX agreement turned out to be a low priority at the G-8 conference,” said one Russian source close to the negotiations. “In any case, the big thing is to negotiate the government-to-government extension of the project.”

MOX Survival at Risk Over Technical Agreement Expiration?
This five-year long 1998 agreement, outlining the technical aspect of the MOX programme, was signed by former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and then US Vice President Al Gore. It covers concept design, research and development, small pilot projects for fuel testing, equipment transfers, limited testing of lead-test assemblies, and international seminars. It also expires July 31st. Without the promise of a renewed technical agreement, contracts for work on the project are drying up. According to one official with the United States’ National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, the agreement may get a one-year extension. But this official noted that “one more year is not attractive potential for contractors or government funders.”

Both sides, therefore, are still under immense deadline pressure to agree on a substantive extension for the technical accord—an agreement, said the Russian source, that seems unlikely, given the resources already expended on the lagging programme. If some agreement is not reached, the source said, the entire MOX plan could well unravel.

“The people who are supposed to be talking to each other about it are not talking about it,” said the Russian source.

As an example of this, the source pointed to lapses in communication between the US State Department and the NNSA. As of May 30th—during the last of the pre-summit talks in Washington—Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who is in charge of non-proliferation, and Ambassador Linton Brooks, Deputy Administrator for the NNSA, hadn’t even formally spoken about the future of the MOX plan.

Neither the NNSA nor the State Department would confirm or deny this.

Financing for the Russian MOX fabrication plant is also not going as planned. The State Department’s point man on the MOX programme, Ambassador Michael Guhin, had said that the US would pledge $400,000 toward the construction of Russia’s $1-billion plant. Another $400,000 was pledged by members of the European Union, Japan and Canada.

Nothing, however, was said at the summit about the EU pledges, or other commitments to make up the remaining $200,000 difference.

But Harvard University nuclear expert Matthew Bunn, who has been close to MOX negotiations, did not agree with the dire predictions by the Russian source that the MOX programme would fall through any time soon. “I very much doubt it will collapse this year, though you can’t rule out problems down the road,” said Bunn.

Agreement Extension in Limbo
The deadlock in which the MOX technical agreement currently finds itself is “already a serious problem,” said Bunn. According to the Russian source, there isn’t even a replacement agreement in the works to extend the old one. Bunn did not know if there was a new version of the agreement in the works, but he was optimistic.

“One way or another, they will manage to produce a new version,” he told Bellona Web in a telephone interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The key to an extension on the technical agreement, said the Russian source, is to get the governments to talk to each other about it and hash out the details. But compelling the US State Department to act on this, said the Russian source, is unlikely. One of the State Department’s primary concerns, said Bunn, was that extending this agreement would set a bad precedent for liability.

He said the current disagreements over liability issues are still smouldering between the State Department, Russia, and the US Department of Energy, or DOE. The 1998 agreement did not adopt the provisions of the “umbrella agreement” of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme, which places all liability for any accidents on Russia. The State Department reasons that all US-Russian threat reduction agreements should be modelled on the CTR liability approach.

However, under an agreement signed in 2000 by US President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which codified that the project would indeed go forward, liability was “to be negotiated” between the two countries. State Department officials would not comment about what these liability needs may be.

The last opportunity to secure any extension on the technical agreement, according to Gosatomnadzor, or GAN, Russia’s nuclear regulatory body, will come at a conference to be held on July 21st to July 23rd—eight days before the technical assistance agreement expires. This conference, according to a highly placed GAN official who did not wish to be named in this article, “will put licensing agencies back in charge” of the MOX programme—as opposed to the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy, or Minatom.

According to the Russian source, many important contacts and developments between Russian, European and American nuclear regulatory agencies will be jeopardised if the government-to-government technical agreement is not extended.

“Finally, the NNSA and GAN, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and even at times Minatom, are talking to each other about, and developing, regulatory procedures that did not exist in Russia before,” said the source. “GAN has received serious training in nuclear regulation thanks to the group efforts of US and European nuclear regulatory bodies,” he said.

“It would be a pity to lose that rapport,” said the source.

MOX Plant Design Also a Snag
Another sticking point in the MOX agreement is the design of the MOX fuel fabrication plants, which will be built in both the US and Russia by American nuclear company Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster, or DCS, which was specifically formed to build the MOX facilities.

But at recent meetings in Moscow between the Russian and American sides over the design of the Russian plant, embarrassing inconsistencies and unpleasant arguments arose. While the US MOX fabrication facility has long been slated for construction at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, or SRS, arguments have raged for years about where to put the Russian plant.

First, it was slated for construction at the Siberian Mining and Chemical Combine near Krasnoyarsk. Then, according to a highly placed GAN source, the US State Department’s Guhin inked a deal with Minatom to build the site near the Mayak Chemical Combine—the most radioactively polluted site on earth. Then, at the end of May, it was decided the facility would be built near the Siberian city of Tomsk.

According to the Russian official, this kind of last-minute decision-making on the Russian side will throw the programme far enough behind schedule and over budget that the State Department will most likely scotch extending the deadline for technical cooperation.

However, according to one US expert on MOX, who requested anonymity, moving the construction site of the facility should not affect the outcome of the MOX programme. He was strongly opposed to the notion that failing to extend the technical cooperation agreement would derail the MOX programme.

“It’s pure and undiluted speculation that this would lead to an abandonment of the MOX programme,” he wrote in an email interview. “Abandoning the effort would not be up to the State Department—this is a US government-wide project, largely being implemented by the DOE, with National Security Council oversight of all the agencies’ activities. Final decisions are the subject of interagency discussion and are ultimately up to the White House.”

Immobilisation versus MOX: Theory
It has long been Bellona’s position—as well as that of other international environmental organisations—that plutonium disposition through MOX is an environmental and economic error on behalf of both the Russian and American governments. Bellona has advocated for “immobilisation” of the surplus plutonium in both countries.

Immobilisation can be achieved via two processes. One combines high level radioactive waste, a specially fabricated sand, and weapons-grade plutonium oxide, which would all be homogeneously melted together.

This approach, however, was not pursued by the DOE, and has not been promoted by the various European advocates of immobilisation, the US expert said.

The more recent approach in the US, prior to adopting the all-MOX option, was the so-called “can-in-canister” approach, according to the expert. In this variant, plutonium would be immobilised, without being immediately surrounded by high-level wastes, in ceramic “pucks”—similar in size and shape, as the term suggests, to hockey pucks. These pucks would be loaded into cans, the cans would be arrayed on a rack inside huge canisters, into which molten glass containing high-level waste would then be poured up to the rim. Such a design would provide an intense radiation self-defence similar to the highly radioactive components found in spent MOX fuel.

This method of immobilisation was expected to be substantially less costly,” the US expert said.

The expert noted, however, that with the can-in-canister approach, it may be less complicated to extract the weapons plutonium than in the case of spent MOX fuel, at least for the host state. If the canister were reheated to the melting temperature of the glass, noted the expert, and a hole cut in the bottom of the storage canister, the glass would pour out leaving the immobilised plutonium pucks behind with no radiation barrier.

But environmental and nuclear experts at Bellona say that, be it MOX or immobilisation, the point is to provide security as nearly impenetrable as possible for storing the disposed plutonium. In theory, say Bellona’s experts, this would be easier and cheaper to achieve for immobilised plutonium, for which special centralised storage facilities would likely be built. In fact, US funding is building such a site at the Mayak Chemical Combine—slated to open this year—and the US is pursuing its Yucca Mountain repository. In the case of spent MOX fuel, however, the likelihood is that it will remain scattered at poorly guarded onsite storage facilities at the reactors slated to burn MOX, as is the current practice at most Russian reactors where commercial reactor SNF is stored.

Thus, in addition to the almost prohibitive expenses for reactor upgrades and MOX fuel fabrication, a centralised facility for storing spent MOX fuel will be needed, or security at MOX-burning reactors would have to be almost completely restructured all over Russia—a country notorious for its lax SNF storage procedures, Bellona experts said.

Additionally, the MOX method, as opposed to immobilisation, is essentially a method of breeding even more plutonium, because, as in any reaction involving uranium—which is present in the MOX combination—plutonium is accumulated as a by-product, Bellona said.

Immobilisation versus MOX: Practice
At the initial discussions over plutonium disposition between Russian ex-President Boris Yeltsin and American ex-President Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1995, both leaders declared that they would dispose of 34 tonnes each of weapons-grade plutonium that the two countries regarded as surplus to their weapons needs. Both sides, however, have more weapons-grade plutonium in stock. The US has declared its stocks equal to 100 tonnes. Russia has released no official figures, but most estimates indicate it has some 150 tonnes stockpiled.

These initial discussions advocated disposing of the surplus plutonium via both methods—immobilisation and MOX. But Russia’s original objections to immobilisation were fuelled by Minatom’s assertions that plutonium is the nuclear fuel of the future. The Russians have also argued against immobilisation from a financial point of view: Making MOX employs more scientists who, since the collapse of the Soviet military complex, the state is hardly able to pay. In the MOX scheme, more jobs would be created and these workers would be paid in part by the US government. Minatom’s scandal-tarred former chief, Yevgeny Adamov, was especially critical of the immobilisation approach.

Adamov, who still maintains a shadowy influence over Minatom’s current administration, wrote in a recent article that, aside from a few “insignificant” tonnes of plutonium that would have to be burned for the sake of political agreements, the remaining weapons reserves could fuel a whole new generation of plutonium-burning BREST series reactors. Minatom has long had this project on the drawing board. The BREST series are breeder reactors, which both run on and produce reactor-grade plutonium—a sort of nuclear perpetual motion machine.

Another one of Russia’s arguments against US advocacy of immobilisation, according to the US expert, were suspicions that it was a smokescreen for storing the US’s own strategic reserves of plutonium.

“Hence, the Russians have long opposed having the United States immobilise its own plutonium while the Russians used theirs as fuel, since immobilisation does not change the isotopics, making it possible in principle to recover the plutonium and put it back into existing weapon designs without testing,” wrote the US expert.

The DOE has nonetheless noted that immobilisation is ‘modestly’ cheaper than an all-MOX approach, but the US expert wrote that “an all-immobilisation programme doesn’t get the main job done—dealing with Russia’s plutonium—since Russia refuses to immobilise it.”

The Bush administration—which, like Minatom, has its own plutonium dreams—formally scratched immobilisation from the plutonium disposition accord.