For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go

Dealing with uranium enrichment is complicated because nuclear power plants use enriched uranium fuel, but that should not hold us back from eliminating the danger we can eliminate—plutonium.

Plutonium pellet. US Energy Department public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), whose tenth review conference is coming up in August, is in trouble, and not only because of the crescendo of complaints about the failure of the nuclear-armed states to implement nuclear disarmament. The treaty is threatened with irrelevancy because its controls have not kept up with the times. It was drafted over 50 years ago, when it was widely believed that nuclear energy represented the future and would soon take over the generation of electricity. Not surprisingly, countries put few treaty restrictions on access to technology or materials other than to impose international inspection, and even that was circumscribed. We now have a more realistic view of the dangers of access to fuels that are also nuclear explosives (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and also of the limited economic utility of these fuels for powering reactors. If we want an effective NPT, we have to eliminate these dangerous materials from civilian nuclear power programs. 

Dealing with uranium enrichment is complicated because nuclear power plants use enriched uranium fuel, but that should not hold us back from eliminating the danger we can eliminate—plutonium.

As soon as one mentions reinterpreting what the NPT allows, the treaty’s “originalism” crowd immediately pronounces the notion a non-starter. But we already have essentially eliminated an entire article (Article V) of the NPT that covered a technology—“peaceful” nuclear explosives—subsequently deemed both too dangerous and with negligible economic promise. That is exactly the situation with plutonium-fueled nuclear power reactors.

Separated plutonium in national hands leaves too little safety margin against possible use in warheads. At the same time, there is no economic penalty for doing without it. It should not be permitted in commercial use in all member countries. Existing civil stocks, like Japan’s nine tons, should be put under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision until their owners can safely dispose of the material.

This may sound radical, especially given the drumbeat of the US Energy Department and nuclear industry propaganda about a new generation of “advanced reactors” under development, most of them plutonium-fueled. But it is nothing more than President Gerry Ford’s common sense proposal in his 1976 Nuclear Policy Statement. He said we should forego using plutonium until “the world community can effectively overcome the associated risks of proliferation.” We are nowhere within reach of such a condition.

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The NPT’s laxity on plutonium stems from the widespread beliefs at the time it was negotiated in the 1960s. Nuclear power plants were then considered destined to take over electricity generation and were thus vital for powering national economies. The US Atomic Energy Commission estimated that “essentially all [US] generating capacity built in the 21st century would be nuclear.” Moreover, and this is key, the Atomic Energy Commission believed uranium was scarce. To stretch nuclear fuel supply, they believed it would be necessary to develop reactors that turned the 99 percent of non-fissionable uranium into plutonium and then use that as fuel—plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors.

That became doctrine in nuclear bureaucracies throughout the world and the NPT was drawn up to facilitate that result. (Ironically, had the projections been fulfilled, and the world commercial channels been flooded with plutonium, the possibility of effective control would have vanished.) Given nuclear power’s then-imagined critical importance, it’s not surprising that the less advanced NPT signatories insisted on full access to nuclear technology, hence on Article IV of the NPT that famously states all members have “the inalienable right” to it.

It has since turned out that all of the “expert” thinking about plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors taking over electricity production was wrong. Contrary to the projections of the 1960s, nuclear energy’s prospects are limited, uranium is not scarce, extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel is hugely expensive, and the plutonium-fueled reactors are expensive to build, which eliminated the economic arguments for the so-called plutonium economy. This is now clear to all but messianic believers in nuclear energy.

But the vestiges of this technological archaism continue to animate national bureaucracies that deal with the NPT, including that of the US, and the IAEA, as well. Perhaps the most glaring examples of the residual attachment to plutonium is Japan, which accumulated an enormous stockpile of plutonium and China, which, like Japan, plans to open a large reprocessing plant to separate more for two large fast breeder reactors. The US Energy Department is planning an expensive fast reactor to test fuel (the Versatile Test Reactor) for a mythical future commercial generation of such reactors. These steps legitimate similar actions elsewhere and undermine effective nonproliferation controls.

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With the diminished prospects of nuclear power, the amount of this plutonium-related activity is not going to be anything like what the nuclear community once projected. The essential point remains: Amounts of plutonium that are very small in commercial terms can be very large in military terms.

At a more fundamental level, the United States needs to speak clearly to dispel the myth—one that still grips some NPT member countries—that nuclear power is an essential technology without which a country cannot consider itself as advanced. To get into the details would take us too far afield. But, as an indication of current nuclear prospects, consider the collapse of the highly vaunted “nuclear renaissance” at the beginning of this century that was to lead to construction of dozens of plants in the United States. US nuclear operators filed license applications for 31 large units. They ultimately canceled all but two, and those two are years behind schedule and already double the original cost, which led the original contractor, once proud Westinghouse, to file for bankruptcy.

America’s utility sector has been consistent on this score: It is not going to build any additional large nuclear reactors and doesn’t extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel. This message presented at the 2021 NPT Review Conference would help clear the decks for an honest assessment of what is needed for protection against access to nuclear weapons. If plutonium and reprocessing (its separation technology) are generally permissible, and only barred when worries arise in special cases like Iran, the NPT will ultimately undo itself.

None of this is to suggest that the NPT members will be easily persuaded, or perhaps even persuaded at all, of the need to limit what is permissible under the treaty. The entrenched plutonium-fuel firms and laboratories, and their government backers, including those in the United States, will not easily let go of their subsidies. But we need to start.


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