Problems of where to store extra plutonium from deeper Cold war weapons cuts dog Obama

Publish date: May 12, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

US President Barack Obama plans for deep new cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal comes at a time when the government is facing a 15-year backlog of warheads already awaiting dismantlement, and billions of dollars are needed for new facilities to store and dispose of plutonium.

The move to cut arms, unilaterally proposed by Obama and apparently getting a warm welcome in Russia, has been hailed worldwide by nations anxious to put the dust of the Cold War under the rug forever, and deal with the newer, more specific nuclear threats of smuggling and nuclear terrorism.

But the the traffic jam promises to become all the more challenging bases on promises made by Obama in April to Russian President Dmirty Medvedev to dismantle their nuclear weapons stockpiles well below levels set by current arms pacts that are set to expire.

Many American arms experts, while lauding the goal, have said that the needed infrastructure to dispose of these weapons do not yet exists. Federal Audits and other records reviewed by the US press outlets and Bellona Web confirm this.

According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous division of the US Energy Department responsible for nuclear weapons programmes, disposing of the weapons that have already been taken out of commission under the START treaty, which expires in December, will take until 2024, and disposing of the plutonium cores from those weapons will run long past 2030.

These plans do not yet account for the extra weapons that Obama will look to decommission.

But the mammoth effort of paring down the arsenals of the Cold War enemies even further than already planned will present challenges to safe storage of nuclear materials, many highly regarded American scholars are noting.

Though specific nuclear weapon disassembly figures are secret, a study of available data by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federation of American Scientists found that, the Bush administration dismantled the fewest warheads per year since the Eisenhower era.

About 2,700 warheads remain deployed, 2,500 are in operational reserve and 4,200 are awaiting disassembly, the report says.

Cuts by Obama could add a few thousand to that.

"No effort has really been made to transform (the nuclear weapons programme) to meet the mission of nuclear weapons elimination," Robert Alvarez, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior adviser at the Energy Department under the Clinton Administration, said.

Programme funds, he said, "have gone mostly to maintain what we now recognize is an oversized nuclear stockpile."

Former arms negotiator and head of the NNSA from 2002 to 2007, said that building the necessary storage facilities “is expensive and is going to take a long time (…) it means the queue gets longer.”  

Brooks, a Bush Administration appointee to his former NNSA post, was circumspect about the Obama Administration’s plans.

“That doesn’t stop the president from taking more warheads off missiles and bombers and (adding to) to the backlog,” he said.

Among those areas where a US backlog in weapons dismantlement are likely to become apparent quickly are a Texas storage site for plutonium pits, which will start hitting space shortages in 2014, an inspector general audit released earlier this years said.

Russian-American failures in PU disposition plan again apparent
Furthermore, a plant that was meant to convert plutonium pits in to reactor fuel under the so-called 2000 Plutonium Disposition Plan signed by former Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bush, has not even been sited yet. The planned cost of the plant is $4 billion

This ambitious but controversial plan, wherein the United States and Russia would convert 34 tons a piece of weapons plutoinium to MOX reactor fuel, has foundered past one deadline after another – the newest deadline for the beginning of construction of he US plant being 2021.

Russia has been reluctant to give up its plutonium stockpiles, and the United States has not been anxious to cut loose billions of dollars for the construction of an analogous plant in Russia.

Another$4.8 billion US plant at the DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina that would convert plutonium into mixed oxide reactor fuel is similarly not slated to be running until 2016.

But Alvarez, in earlier interviews with Bellona Web, has pointed to the flawed science and environmental dangers behind building the mixed oxide site.

"The conversion and fabrication of weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel involves ultra-hazardous first-generation technologies with no proven history of success on an industrial scale," he said in an email interview.

"There’s a considerable amount of work that needs to be done to convert this stuff, that is not required with fresh plutonium that hasn’t been rendered into a metal for weapons."

Alvarez has sited sloppy bureaucracy and poor science on the American side, and foot dragging reluctance to part with plutonium on the Russian side for the continued failure of the Plutonium Disposition programme.

Russian cult of plutonium
“Throughout the Clinton Administration, Minatom (now Rosatom) would not even consider discussion of immobilization, because of the belief that plutonium has great value based on the Soviet rationale of ‘sunk costs,’" said Alvarez.

"(Rosatom’s) plutonium policy mirrors that of the US in the 1960’s. Powerful elements of secrecy, isolation and privilege have fostered a rigid theological view by Rosatom about the benefits of plutonium."

Indeed, while Medvedev and Obama warm to each other over the projected cuts, Rosatom is still busily pursuing plans for a closed plutonium fuel cycle that would involve using that very weapons plutonium to power nuclear reactors.

More money from Obama
Obama’s 2010 budget plan would boost spending for weapons disposition by $4 million, or 5 percent, to $84 million, according to the NNSA.

Timelines for eliminating the current backlog of retired warheads and the added weapons Obama wants to cut will depend on how far the reductions ultimately go, said current NNSA head Tom D’Agostino. He notes that a "nuclear posture review," due this fall, will help determine how much more storage and dismantlement capacity is needed.

"There are infrastructure hurdles, but until that review is done, substantial infrastructure changes would be premature," D’Agostino said.