Executive Summary

As a result of agreements for nuclear arms reductions, the United States and Russia are expected to cut their stockpiles of warheads substantially. Dismantlement of warheads has already started on both sides at a significant rate. As a consequence, large quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium (WPu) will become excess to military needs in the next decade. About 100 tons of WPu is expected to become excess in Russia over the next ten years.

The consequences of the release of this fissile material in Russia pose grave risks to international security. The excess material might be reused in nuclear weapons if political circumstances change dramatically, or it might be illegally diverted and end up in the hands of proliferating states or even sub-national terrorist groups.

Minimizing these dangers to international security is in the clear interest of Russia’s Western partners. This report seeks to identify possible German contributions, in cooperation with the United States, to help to accelerate the management and disposition process and to enhance its security. For all German considerations and activities, the context of the European Union must be taken into account. The report concentrates on the management and disposition of WPu because solutions for HEU are technically much easier and the implementation of these solutions is already more advanced.

Several overlapping phases of the management and disposition process must be distinguished. In a first phase, the United States, Russia, and the international community are working to create a regime of enhanced transparency for the stockpiles of all fissile materials. The second phase is the dismantlement of the warheads, the third is the intermediate storage of components, the fourth is the disposition process, the fifth is a second intermediate storage of the resulting products, and the ultimate step is geological disposition. Technical assistance should be aimed at reducing the risks throughout the entire process; in large part this depends on improving the quality of material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A).

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) carried out an extensive study of the management and disposition of excess weapons plutonium, and the findings of that study serve as the technical basis for this report.1 In reaching its conclusions, the NAS study gave the greatest weight to the security effects of the various options—their capacity to reduce rapidly the direct and indirect security risks posed by prolonged storage of weapons plutonium, while minimizing any new security risks arising from the disposition options themselves. Other criteria, such as technical feasibility within a comparatively short time, low risks to environment and health, political acceptability to the relevant parties, and reasonable costs were considered as well, but security considerations were paramount.

As a basis for assessing relative security risks, the NAS study recommends that WPu disposition operations should meet what it calls the “spent fuel standard.” This means making the excess WPu roughly as inaccessible for weapons use as the much larger and growing quantity of plutonium in spent fuel from commercial nuclear-power reactors. It concludes that two disposition options are the most promising and should be pursued: one is mixing WPu with high-level

1  

National Academy of Sciences, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).



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U.S.-GERMAN COOPERATION IN THE ELIMINATION OF EXCESS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM Executive Summary As a result of agreements for nuclear arms reductions, the United States and Russia are expected to cut their stockpiles of warheads substantially. Dismantlement of warheads has already started on both sides at a significant rate. As a consequence, large quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium (WPu) will become excess to military needs in the next decade. About 100 tons of WPu is expected to become excess in Russia over the next ten years. The consequences of the release of this fissile material in Russia pose grave risks to international security. The excess material might be reused in nuclear weapons if political circumstances change dramatically, or it might be illegally diverted and end up in the hands of proliferating states or even sub-national terrorist groups. Minimizing these dangers to international security is in the clear interest of Russia’s Western partners. This report seeks to identify possible German contributions, in cooperation with the United States, to help to accelerate the management and disposition process and to enhance its security. For all German considerations and activities, the context of the European Union must be taken into account. The report concentrates on the management and disposition of WPu because solutions for HEU are technically much easier and the implementation of these solutions is already more advanced. Several overlapping phases of the management and disposition process must be distinguished. In a first phase, the United States, Russia, and the international community are working to create a regime of enhanced transparency for the stockpiles of all fissile materials. The second phase is the dismantlement of the warheads, the third is the intermediate storage of components, the fourth is the disposition process, the fifth is a second intermediate storage of the resulting products, and the ultimate step is geological disposition. Technical assistance should be aimed at reducing the risks throughout the entire process; in large part this depends on improving the quality of material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A). The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) carried out an extensive study of the management and disposition of excess weapons plutonium, and the findings of that study serve as the technical basis for this report.1 In reaching its conclusions, the NAS study gave the greatest weight to the security effects of the various options—their capacity to reduce rapidly the direct and indirect security risks posed by prolonged storage of weapons plutonium, while minimizing any new security risks arising from the disposition options themselves. Other criteria, such as technical feasibility within a comparatively short time, low risks to environment and health, political acceptability to the relevant parties, and reasonable costs were considered as well, but security considerations were paramount. As a basis for assessing relative security risks, the NAS study recommends that WPu disposition operations should meet what it calls the “spent fuel standard.” This means making the excess WPu roughly as inaccessible for weapons use as the much larger and growing quantity of plutonium in spent fuel from commercial nuclear-power reactors. It concludes that two disposition options are the most promising and should be pursued: one is mixing WPu with high-level 1   National Academy of Sciences, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).

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U.S.-GERMAN COOPERATION IN THE ELIMINATION OF EXCESS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM radioactive waste with subsequent vitrification into large, highly radioactive glass logs; the other is fabrication into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel with subsequent irradiation in existing light water reactors. Several Western programs to assist Russian management and disposition exist or are planned. They are still in their early stages, although most are expected to accelerate. The United States is providing important assistance to Russia for the construction of an intermediate storage facility, but progress has been slow. A new program that enables direct interaction among scientists from U.S. and Russian weapons laboratories has proven an especially promising means to achieve cooperation to improve MPC&A. The creation of a training center in Russia for inspectors and material accountancy experts by the European Union and Russia has also been productive. A joint Russian-German feasibility study on MOX technology for weapons plutonium disposition was completed in late 1994 and will be followed by further collaboration. 2 Russia has limited experience with vitrification and with MOX use in light water reactors. The U.S. and Germany have significant experience with vitrification of high-level waste, but no experience so far with the addition of plutonium to the waste. This is believed to be technically feasible, but further research is necessary. Germany has extensive experience with the use of MOX fuel in light water reactors. A new MOX fabrication facility at Hanau with an annual throughput capacity of 5 tons of plutonium is 95 percent completed and in possession of all licenses for fabricating MOX from commercial plutonium, but not from weapons plutonium. But pending court cases and the policy of the regional Red-Green state government to phase out all nuclear energy create serious doubts about whether the plant can come into operation. The civilian nuclear policies of the United States, Russia, and Germany differ substantially. Workable options must take these differences into account in order to gain acceptance by all participating actors. The exclusive goal of this report is to enhance international security, which the Steering Committee wants to unlink from addressing other policy goals. For the purposes of this report, the only relevance of the nuclear policies of the three countries is their impact on the acceptability of options. Russia’s goals for its civilian nuclear industry include the use of plutonium in a closed fuel cycle, particularly in breeders. The Russians reject the vitrification option, arguing that plutonium has a high energy value that should be exploited. Russia has a strong interest in Western assistance for its program of fast reactors and MOX technology. In the United States, no closed fuel cycle to recycle reprocessed plutonium exists, and government policy is not to encourage such technologies abroad. A U.S. collaboration in Russian breeder programs is therefore highly unlikely. U.S. participation in a MOX solution in Russia can only be expected if the contributions to nonproliferation—reduction of the amount of separated plutonium and achievement of the spent fuel standard—are predominant. In Germany, nuclear policy is in a transition. Interest in plutonium recycling has diminished due to a lack of public acceptance and for economic reasons. So-called consensus talks on the 2   The report, by the German Association for Reactor Safety (GRS), Siemens, and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), will be published under the title Technische Studie über die Produktion von Uran-Plutonium-Brennstoff aus waffengrädigem Plutonium und über die Möglichkeiten seines Einsatzes in der Kernenergiewirtschaft (Technical Study on the Production of Uranium-Plutonium-Fuel from Weapons Grade Plutonium and on the Possibilities of its Use in Civilian Nuclear Energy).

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U.S.-GERMAN COOPERATION IN THE ELIMINATION OF EXCESS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM future of energy policy, which will attempt to resolve a large variety of questions, are under way. Separating disarmament from energy policy in Germany seems difficult. The Steering Committee has agreed on a set of recommendations to the U.S. and German governments: Material protection, control, and accountancy (MPC&A) Technical aid for Russian MPC&A should be enhanced in all phases of the disarmament process and Germany should contribute to these efforts. The United States has had good experience with its laboratory-to-laboratory program where scientists interact directly. In Germany there is little current research and development (R&D) on MPC&A, but use could be made of the extensive practical experience in fuel fabrication and reactor operations at the relevant enterprises. The logical German scientific partner is the Konsortium Gesellschaft für Anlagen- und Reaktorsicherheit (GRS, Society for Reactor Safety), which already has many contacts with Russian scientists. The Steering Committee therefore recommends that the GRS should be tasked to develop individual projects for collaboration with Russian laboratories. First, it should contact the U.S. laboratory-to-laboratory program to identify the most pressing deficiencies that are not already being adequately addressed by the United States. Then the GRS should subcontract with the appropriate experts from industry and other appropriate institutions; specific funding to the institutions and people in Germany and Russia doing the work would be required. Senior U.S. and Russian officials responsible for the lab-to-lab activities, and a European coordinator, should be asked to cooperate with the GRS in the efforts. Intermediate storage The United States is assisting Russia with the design and construction of an intermediate storage facility for WPu. Germany could provide technical assistance, such as special construction equipment and instrumentation, and financing. As a non-nuclear weapons state, however, Germany must avoid all contact with weapons components. Germany has an independent interest in international safeguards, but since Russia is unwilling to accept international monitoring of the dismantling process, for an interim period Germany would rely on U.S. assurances that it was satisfied with Russian progress. Otherwise, there will be little chance of gaining Russian acceptance at this time. The Hanau Option The Steering Committee agrees that the technically fastest solution for the disposal of weapons plutonium would be transferring Russian plutonium to the plant at Hanau for fabrication into MOX, followed by use in existing light water reactors. An advantage would be the high standards of safety and security and the international safeguards in the Hanau facility. The primary disadvantage is that the chance of acceptance is very low. The opposition will be based largely on the belief that use of the Hanau facility will represent an endorsement of a plutonium economy in Germany. The Hanau plant would be fully occupied for 20 years with fabricating MOX from 100 tons of excess Russian weapons plutonium if it were dedicated to that task, however.

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U.S.-GERMAN COOPERATION IN THE ELIMINATION OF EXCESS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM Decisions must be made quickly because the option of using the Hanau plant will not be available much longer without a federal commitment and guarantee. Several prerequisites would be necessary for this option: Russian agreement, agreement of the Hesse government, agreement of major German democratic parties, financial compensation for the Russians, financing of the additional costs for the utilities, and financing the completion and operation of the plant. The problem of transporting WPu from Russia to Hanau would also have to be addressed. The Steering Committee recommends testing this option by sounding out whether consensus could be reached among the German federal government, the Hesse government, and the major political parties in Germany, and with Russia on its possible implementation. If such a broad consensus appears realistic, the option should be pursued. The next step would be a financing commitment for keeping the option open until all necessary decisions have been made. A Large MOX Fabrication Plant in Russia The preferred Russian option is probably the construction of an industrial-scale MOX facility in Russia, because it could also support a large, civilian closed fuel cycle industry. The Siemens Corporation is currently negotiating for the construction of a copy of the Hanau facility in Russia. Some cost reduction could be expected by using equipment from the Hanau plant, if that were dismantled. Substantial obstacles would have to be overcome to make this a viable solution. A solution that would help move Russia closer to a closed fuel cycle would be opposed by some German political parties and a large segment of the German public. It also runs counter to current U.S. policy concerning nuclear power, so U.S. political or financial support for this option is unlikely. As noted above, however, 100 tons of excess Russian weapons plutonium could make use of all the capacity of a Hanau-size plant for 20 years, if it were used exclusively for that purpose. The Steering Committee recommends pursuing this option only if it becomes clear that the various obstacles to its success stand a reasonable chance of being overcome. Small MOX Fabrication Facility The Russian-German feasibility study recommended German assistance for the building of a small MOX fabrication facility in Russia with a consumption rate of one ton of weapons plutonium per year, in order to demonstrate the application of the technology in the Russian environment. The plant would have to satisfy Russian as well as German standards. The Steering Committee endorses this recommendation in parallel with several other activities. While the scale of this plant is not adequate to significantly decrease the inventory of Russian WPu, it would give valuable experience in a variety of processes associated with disposition. The project should also include collaborative work between appropriate German and Russian institutes and industries to analyze the Russian VVER 1000 nuclear power reactors to determine what modifications would be necessary to use partial or full MOX cores. This should be complemented by the fabrication of some MOX fuel assemblies (by European or Russian fuel facilities) to be consumed in the VVER 1000s, with appropriate safeguards. Small Pilot Vitrification Facility The Russians reject vitrification for the disposition of weapons plutonium, as this would make no use of its energy content. The Steering Committee, therefore, does not recommend efforts to gain Russian acceptance for a major vitrification facility for Russian WPu at this time.

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U.S.-GERMAN COOPERATION IN THE ELIMINATION OF EXCESS WEAPONS PLUTONIUM On the other hand, vitrification is one of the major options under consideration in the United States. Moreover, in addition to the WPu from warheads, Russia has a substantial amount of residual WPu, and vitrification, for technical reasons, appears to be the preferable disposal option. Russia will need this or similar technology to dispose of civilian high-level radioactive waste in any case. Therefore the Steering Committee recommends the development and construction of a small vitrification facility in Russia, which the Russians could use for their weapons plutonium residues (e.g., non-metal scrap and waste plutonium) as a pilot project. A facility with a capacity of approximately 40 kg of glass per day, which would be equivalent to a daily throughput of 0.4 kg of plutonium, would be an appropriate size. The Russians would become familiar with the vitrification technology and the associated safeguards and the experience might reduce Russian opposition to vitrification. The acceptance in the German and the U.S. public should be high. International Safeguards The recommended options must be designed to facilitate eventual international safeguards. The only exception, for a limited time, is assistance to intermediate storage as long as intact pits are stored, because they involve proliferation-sensitive and classified information. The Committee does not recommend directly linking technical aid for the disposition of weapons plutonium to a need for international safeguards on civilian plutonium, but it gives a strong recommendation for a diplomatic effort to negotiate in favor of a regime of comprehensive international safeguards for all kinds of plutonium in all countries.