THE HONORABLE JOHN H. GIBBONS
ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
UNITED STATES SENATE
PLUTONIUM AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY
MAY 26, 1994
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on the problem of dealing with the vast stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) which, with the end of the Cold War, have become excess to military needs. Nothing could be more central to our security than making sure this material does not fall into the wrong hands.
This is one of the most challenging policy problems I have come across, weaving together issues of technology, security, environment, energy, and international politics. To integrate the varied aspects of the problem, we need careful management, high-level oversight, and well-informed congressional and public input.
Over the past several months, this Administration has developed a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the plutonium problem, built on four pillars: securing nuclear materials against theft or diversion; building confidence through openness; halting further accumulation of excess stocks; and carrying out long-term disposition of these fissile materials. All of the many initiatives now underway fit together into this four-part structure. This week in Moscow, the United States and Russia have made major progress in broadening our discussions and cooperation in each of these four areas.
Before I describe our strategy and initiatives in more detail, however, let me first outline the scale of the problem we have.
The HEU part of the problem is technically straightforward: excess HEU can be blended with other uranium to make low-enriched reactor fuel that cannot be used in nuclear weapons, and is a valuable product for sale on the commercial market. As you know, Russia and the United States have signed a purchase agreement under which the United States will purchase low-enriched fuel blended from 500 tons of excess HEU. In January, President Clinton, Russian President Yeltsin, and Ukrainian President Kravchuk signed an agreement under which Ukraine will receive a share of the proceeds of the HEU purchase agreement in the form of low-enriched fuel for its reactors, in return for shipping the nuclear warheads now on its soil to Russia for dismantlement. That arrangement is already being implemented: several trainloads of nuclear warheads have already arrived at Russian dismantlement facilities, and shipments of nuclear fuel have been sent to Ukraine in return. Some hard work remains to be done before Russia can begin blending HEU and shipping low-enriched material to the United States, particularly in completing the transparency arrangements and assuring that the product we are buying meets specifications. But we are hard at work on doing just that, and we are making progress.
A Security Liability
Excess weapons plutonium is much more problematic. It cannot be made proliferation-resistant by blending it with other isotopes, as one can with uranium, and reactor fuel made from it is too expensive to compete on the civilian fuel market.
With the ongoing dismantlement of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia will each have dozens of tons of excess plutonium -- and just a dozen pounds is enough for a nuclear bomb. Dealing with this huge excess stock will be hard enough in the United States; Russia must face this daunting challenge in the midst of continuing political and economic turmoil. As a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report warned, this excess material poses a "clear and present danger" to international security.
The plutonium problem does not stop there. We also have to worry about excess plutonium chemically separated from civilian spent fuel. There are already almost 100 tons of this civilian separated plutonium -- which can also be used in nuclear explosives -- around the world today, and more is building up all the time. This plutonium was originally intended to be fuel for breeder reactors that now will not be built for decades -- if ever.
Finally, there are hundreds of tons of plutonium in spent fuel from civilian nuclear power plants all over the world. But that plutonium poses much less security risk than separated plutonium, because the spent fuel's radioactivity makes it difficult to extract the plutonium for use in bombs. Plutonium that has been chemically separated from the intensely radioactive fission products in spent fuel -- including both weapons plutonium and civilian plutonium -- is far easier to handle and make bombs from.
The Academy study recommended that the United States and Russia move with all deliberate speed to make it as difficult to make bombs out of the excess separated plutonium as it is to make bombs out of the plutonium in spent fuel. Then the excess plutonium we are now trying to cope with could become, in effect, one small part of the larger global problem of disposal of spent fuel and other nuclear wastes. That is also a big problem, but it is one we know we must solve in any case.
An Economic Liability
Contrary to some claims, there is no money in plutonium -- except, perhaps, on the nuclear black market. Making reactor fuel from plutonium is so expensive that the fuel cannot compete with uranium fuel, even if the plutonium itself is "free." Like oil shale, plutonium has energy locked inside, but the cost of getting that energy out is more than the energy is worth in today's market.
Therefore, anything we do with our excess weapons plutonium will cost money. But, given the stakes, we must view that expense as an investment in security, just as we once viewed the cost of its production as vital to our security.
An Environmental Liability
Finally, plutonium is not only an economic, but also an environmental liability, thousands of times more toxic than uranium. This administration is making protection for health, safety, and the environment a fundamental requirement of our plutonium storage and disposition activities. I am convinced that we can develop approaches that will allow us to achieve our critical security goals and meet stringent environmental and safety standards at the same time.
An Urgent Problem
Given the security stakes, we cannot afford unnecessary delay. Simply storing this material in forms that could readily be turned back into nuclear weapons would not create the irreversible arms reductions we have committed to seek. And it would mean leaving the material in a form that would be comparatively easy to carry off if there were ever a breakdown in security.
Unfortunately, while disposition of plutonium is an urgent task, the reality is that it will take decades to accomplish. I am reminded of the French marshal who, after learning that it would take 30 years for trees to grow along the boulevard leading to his estate, told his gardener that he had better start planting tonight, rather than waiting until tomorrow.
In setting our policy course, we must keep in mind that while our own excess plutonium poses little direct security risk, the actions we take in managing it will have a major impact on the international scene. What we do with our plutonium in the United States will inevitably affect what Russia does. And what we do with the basic building blocks of our Cold War nuclear arsenal will inevitably affect how other countries manage their plutonium, and how they view our seriousness about arms reductions and nonproliferation.
That, in brief outline, is the challenge before us. Now let me outline what this administration proposes to do about it.
As I mentioned, our strategy is built on four pillars: securing nuclear materials, building confidence through openness, halting further accumulation, and carrying out ultimate disposition. Each of these pillars supports the others; without any one of them, the structure would not stand.
Task I: Securing Nuclear Materials
First, and most urgently, we are working to remove opportunities for bomb materials to end up on a nuclear black market. Many of you, I'm sure, have heard alarming reports of the rise of organized crime in Russia, and the potential threat to security for nuclear materials such activities could pose. As President Clinton and President Yeltsin agreed at their January summit, preventing theft or diversion of weapons-usable materials is a high priority. Let me assure you unequivocally: this administration will not be satisfied until we have taken every practical step available to us to cooperate with Russia in achieving that objective.
So, as I mentioned, we are buying 500 tons of HEU from Russia, blended down to a form that no longer poses a proliferation risk; we are helping Russia with a safe, secure storage site for other fissile materials, with groundbreaking now planned for this summer; and we have proposed a new initiative, known colloquially as the "quick fix" approach, to help Russia rapidly find and fix any urgent security and accounting problems that may exist in its far-flung nuclear complex. That initiative is under an agreement with the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM), though we have made clear that Russia's nuclear regulatory agency must also be included. In addition, we have identified opportunities to cooperate with those nuclear regulators in upgrading security accounting for weapons-usable materials at the many civilian facilities not controlled by MINATOM. Additional Nunn-Lugar assistance is being provided to Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine for material control and accounting and physical protection for nuclear materials, and we are working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to identify and address any problems that may exist in these areas in other former Soviet states.
The surest way to eliminate the risk that nuclear material might be stolen from a particular site is to remove the material. So we are also working with Russia to reduce the number of civilian sites handling weapons-usable materials. We are initiating a program to assist in the conversion of Soviet-designed research reactors from weapons-usable HEU fuel to proliferation-resistant low-enriched fuels. In discussions in Moscow this week, the Russian side made clear their strong interest in this endeavor, particularly in converting those reactors the Soviet Union exported, to countries including Libya and North Korea. At the same time, as President Clinton announced last fall, we are eager to purchase excess stocks of HEU that may exist in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere; we are actively pursuing a number of such purchases in the former Soviet states, which, if successful, will eliminate the proliferation risks posed by materials at several important locations.
As FBI Director Freeh announced May 25, the FBI is opening an office in Moscow to cooperate with Russia in combatting organized crime, which will be an additional focus of effort in reducing this critical proliferation risk. We are encouraging our national laboratories to pursue laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation in improving safeguards and security for nuclear materials, and some cooperative efforts are now beginning. The International Science and Technology Center in Moscow has approved a cooperative program between MINATOM and Russia's nuclear regulatory agency to develop safeguards for plutonium reprocessing -- one of the most difficult safeguards tasks -- at the Tomsk-7 site, home to two operating military plutonium-production reactors and a large reprocessing plant. We are working this problem hard, and I expect additional initiatives will be announced in the weeks to come.
Task II: Building Confidence Through Openness
Second, we are building confidence through openness. This means bilateral openness with Russia; openness to the public, to build public trust, which has been a fundamental part of this Administration's approach since it's earliest days; and international openness.
You have to know how big a problem is before you can solve it, so we have proposed that the United States and Russia share comprehensive information on their stocks of plutonium and HEU. We have made a first step by unilaterally declaring how much weapons plutonium we have produced. In March, we agreed with Russia that the two countries would begin monitoring the storage sites for components from dismantled nuclear weapons, and would work out a bilateral inspection regime to confirm the stockpiles of excess plutonium and HEU resulting from dismantlement. Two weeks ago, U.S. and Russian technical experts agreed that initial familiarization visits would begin in July, with full-blown inspections to begin by the end of the year. We are also taking steps to submit U.S. excess materials to fully international IAEA inspections, and in January, Russia agreed to consider doing the same; the initial bilateral monitoring will provide valuable experience toward that end.
Over the past few days in Moscow (May 23-26), the United States and Russia initiated a joint working group on "transparency and irreversibility" of nuclear arms reductions, as called for by President Clinton and President Yeltsin at their January summit. We reached agreement on a broad mandate to develop measures to meet that objective. Back at home, we are working to develop an integrated transparency strategy that will guide all our transparency efforts, and we expect to have that strategy completed soon. We seek to build a lasting structure of openness that builds confidence that nuclear weapons are being dismantled, plutonium and HEU are secure, and excess materials are not being used for new nuclear weapons.
Task III: Halting Accumulation of Excessive Stocks
Third, we are working with Russia to turn off the spigot -- to stop the accumulation of more excess plutonium and HEU. In March, we reached an agreement with Russia under which they will shut down their military plutonium production reactors. We will help them find financing to replace the heat and power these reactors now provide. We also agreed that the material produced in the meantime will not be used for new weapons. This week in Moscow, I understand that our negotiators are making important progress toward turning these accords-in-principle into formal agreements, under which these reactors would be shut down irrevocably by the year 2000, or sooner if alternate energy sources become available; the plutonium produced between now and then would not be used for nuclear weapons; and measures would be developed to confirm compliance with these obligations. These agreements will be the first steps toward the global treaty we have proposed, designed to end mankind's production of these dangerous fissile materials for weapons forever.
At the same time, we will work with Russia and other countries to limit the accumulation of excessive stockpiles of plutonium in civilian nuclear programs. This plutonium too can be used in nuclear bombs. Because of both the proliferation risks and the economic disadvantages of plutonium use, the United States does not use separated plutonium in its civilian nuclear reactors, and does not encourage others to do so. Others, including Russia and some of our allies, have taken a different view -- with the result, as I mentioned, that almost 100 tons of separated plutonium for civilian purposes is now sitting in storage in various countries, with more building up all the time. We are working to identify alternatives to the reprocessing and use of civilian plutonium, and we will work cooperatively with other countries in our efforts to unravel this knotty problem.
Task IV: Plutonium Disposition
Fourth and finally, we are examining what to do with the existing separated plutonium to reduce its security risks in the long term. We need to build on the security and transparency I have just described, and transform the excess weapons plutonium into a form in which it is better protected from diversion by its own physical and chemical characteristics, or eliminated altogether.
Fortunately, there is an excellent recent National Academy of Sciences report to guide our thinking. The Academy panel recommended that the "spent fuel standard" -- making this material as difficult to use for weapons as the much larger and growing stocks of plutonium in civilian spent fuel -- be the goal of our disposition efforts. Of all of the plutonium-disposition options the Academy panel examined, they concluded that two could achieve this "spent fuel standard" more quickly, more surely, and more cheaply than any of the others.
One approach is to use the excess weapons plutonium as fuel in existing nuclear reactors -- mixed with uranium, in a so-called mixed oxide, or MOX fuel. The other is to blend the plutonium with high-level radioactive wastes, which would then be mixed with molten glass and shaped into large glass logs. Both the MOX approach and the glass approach would require substantial government spending. In each case, intensely radioactive products containing plutonium would have to be stored and ultimately disposed of, like the spent fuel and high-level wastes we already have to handle. There would still be some possibility that the plutonium could be recovered, but it would not be significantly easier to do that than to get plutonium out of the much larger and growing amounts of ordinary spent fuel already in storage.
Already, in response to the Academy's advice, DOE has begun examining the use of plutonium in existing light-water and CANDU reactors, as well as a variety of options for immobilizing plutonium for disposal. Initial results are encouraging. We are also examining a variety of other disposition options. In particular, we are studying the advantages and liabilities of a number of advanced reactor options for this mission.
Balancing the complex security, environmental, and technological issues involved, and building a sustainable consensus behind a single option, will not be easy. Virtually all of the options would require substantial plutonium processing, handling, and transport, and would result in some form of plutonium-bearing radioactive wastes that would have to be put somewhere. I have no doubt there will be some lively discussions concerning where such facilities will be located, and what process will be used for gaining approval for them. But as I said before, we cannot afford to delay. DOE will soon be releasing a Notice of Intent to prepare a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for fissile material storage and disposition. The long-term storage and disposition options identified during the scoping process will be evaluated to a level of detail that allows for analysis in a PEIS and subsequent decision in a Record of Decision. The PEIS will include comprehensive information on the environmental, safety and health impacts to workers and the general public associated with the range of options for long-term storage and disposition of plutonium and other fissile materials. We hope to focus our studies on a small number of leading options later this year, and decide on a disposition option and a path to implement it as soon as possible. We are looking forward to working with Congress and the public on these critical decisions: well-informed Congressional and public participation and oversight will be fundamental to getting the job done.
Keeping our eye on the ball -- that is, remembering that the important disposition issues relate not only to U.S. materials but to Russian materials as well -- will be essential. This week in Moscow (May 23-26), in parallel with the transparency and irreversibility working group, we initiated another joint working group called for by the January Clinton-Yeltsin summit statement, to examine the disposition and accumulation of fissile materials. Here too, we have reached agreement on a broad mandate for cooperation. These talks included initial discussions of a number of sensitive areas where our common interests had never previously been pursued -- such as joint efforts to address the environmental, safety, and health threats posed by the plutonium in our nuclear complexes that is in less stable forms, such as solutions and residues. My office chairs the U.S. side of this joint working group, and I am optimistic that we can develop an ongoing cooperation that will put us on a path to address these problems.
The Way Forward
This is an ambitious agenda: securing fissile material, building confidence through openness, limiting further accumulation, and ultimately transforming it into forms that pose less security risk. The new common themes are comprehensiveness -- focusing on all the materials rather than merely selected parts of the stockpiles -- and reciprocity. We are now willing to open up our nuclear sites in the same way we are suggesting to Russia.
Our vision is of the United States and Russia running our nuclear weapons complexes in reverse -- dismantling thousands of nuclear weapons rather than building more, getting rid of nuclear weapons materials rather than producing ever larger stockpiles, cleaning up rather than further fouling our nuclear sites, fostering openness and trust rather than maintaining strictest secrecy. This administration is committed to making that vision a reality.
As a first step, this year the Secretary of Energy created a department-wide task project to better coordinate efforts within the Department concerning the control and disposition of surplus fissile materials. The project reports directly to the Undersecretary and has line responsibility for developing Departmental recommendations and for directing implementation of decisions concerning the control and disposition of excess nuclear materials. As Undersecretary Charles Curtiss has described to you, DOE is working hard toward a number of critical objectives, in an effort to ensure both security and safety in our management of these materials.
But because these are fundamental national issues, stretching beyond the expertise of any one department, we have established a broad interagency process to ensure that all the voices that must be heard, are heard. Working with the National Security Council, my office chairs the interagency working group on plutonium disposition. The two new U.S.-Russian working groups just established in Moscow will provide a useful focus for our efforts, and a continuing forum for discussion and cooperation.
Two years ago, frustrated by the inaction of the last administration, the late Richard Nixon warned that while we had "won" the Cold War, we were not yet committed to winning the peace. This Administration is working aggressively to accomplish that complex task. But we cannot do all this without the Congress' wise counsel and assistance. If we are to make difficult decisions soon, and sustain the broad support we need to carry them out over the long haul, your ideas and oversight will be critical. Working together, we can get this job done. The future of efforts to reduce nuclear arms and stem their spread depends on our success.