WASHINGTON - February 9 - In testimony today, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman reiterated administration claims that its new initiative to extract plutonium-which can be used to make nuclear weapons-from spent nuclear reactor fuel will use a "proliferation-resistant" technology that would make the plutonium inaccessible and undesirable to terrorists and states pursuing nuclear weapons. However, this claim is contradicted by prior research conducted by two DOE scientists: Dr. E. D. Collins from DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, and Dr. Bruce Goodwin of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"Perhaps Dr. Bodman is unaware of this technical work," noted Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "It clearly demonstrates that the administration's new reprocessing program will pose a serious risk that terrorists could acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon from a U.S. facility."
Plutonium, which is used in most of the world's nuclear weapons, is not very radioactive and not inherently difficult to steal. In an attempt to address this problem, the reprocessing technology in DOE's proposal would leave the plutonium mixed with other elements. However, according to Dr. Collins' research, this mixture would also not be very radioactive and would be essentially as vulnerable to theft as plutonium itself. And Dr. Goodwin's research concludes that the other isotopes in the plutonium mixture can also be used to make nuclear weapons.
A commercial reprocessing plant would handle about 10 tons of this plutonium mixture annually-enough for more than 1,000 crude nuclear weapons. Because it would be converted to liquid and powder forms, it is difficult to precisely measure and keep track of this material. There are several instances in which foreign reprocessing plants have been unable to account for enough plutonium to make ten or more nuclear weapons for over a period of months or years. The modified reprocessing technologies in DOE's proposal would make this problem even worse, because the mixture of plutonium and other elements would be even harder
to precisely measure.
"The safest thing to do with plutonium is to leave it in spent fuel-since it is kept in large, heavy casks and is fatally radioactive," said Dr. Lyman. "Experts agree that no reprocessing technology developed or proposed to date is proliferation-proof."
For more information, and links to the DOE research discussed above,