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The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing today to discuss building mixed oxide fuel facilities to convert surplus plutonium from weapons into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for energy reactors. As President Bush has said, the greatest national security threat facing the United States is a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist. The mostly likely route for a terrorist to acquire such a weapon is through theft of a complete weapon or the fissile materials that can be used to construct an explosive weapons core. Plutonium disposition is an important component of a broad effort to secure vulnerable nuclear fissile materials in Russia.

The plutonium disposition program has suffered years of delays, however, and Congress should press the administration to get it back on track. It is particularly important that the United States and Russia move forward with their long-standing plan to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium each. This effort received a partial lift last year when the United States and Russia resolved a long-standing dispute over legal liability that had stymied progress. Congress must now ensure that the administration moves forward with the plan.

Nevertheless, it is important that Congress and the administration recognize that there are potential costs to plutonium disposition efforts that, if managed poorly, could dramatically outweigh the benefits. As Matt Bunn, a leading expert on nuclear fissile materials security, correctly pointed in testimony before the Committee, “Unless stringent security measures are taken throughout the process, removing plutonium from storage in secure vaults, processing it in bulk forms, and shipping it from place to place can increase rather than decrease the risk of nuclear theft.”

Andrew Grotto, a Senior Analyst at the Center for American Progress, and Brian Finlay of The Henry L. Stimson Center, agree that the benefits of MOX fuel facilities can outweigh the risks, as described in a report released jointly by the two institutions last year. They add that the United States should perform the following:

  • Work with Russia to conclude a comprehensive inventory of the total Russian plutonium stockpile. Having such an inventory is vital to ensuring that each and every ounce of plutonium is accounted for and fully secured. The United States should offer technical and financial assistance to Moscow to complete this important project.
  • Develop a broad strategic plan for neutralizing excess Russian plutonium. Plans to burn excess Russian plutonium as MOX fuel should not prohibit consideration of alternative solutions, including other plutonium-burning nuclear fuel technologies.
  • Conclude a formal agreement with Russia to fill the Mayak storage facility to capacity. The U.S. government should immediately conclude an agreement with Russia that would ensure that the Mayak facility stores any potentially vulnerable bomb-grade material so that the site is used to its fullest potential in the shortest possible timeframe.
  • Fund efforts to shut down the remaining three plutonium producing reactors. The United States should press its counterparts in the G8 Global Partnership to fulfill existing pledges and commit additional resources. If adequate G8 partner funding cannot be secured, the United States should appropriate the necessary resources so that target dates do not slip further.

Read a full report from the Center for American Progress on this issue:

See also:

  • Securing the Bomb (PDF), by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier from the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

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