NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION: Outspoken Opponents of Plutonium Demilitarization

Delays and Missteps in Nuclear Demilitarization: Part 4



This Knol deals with obdurate opponents of plutonium demilitarization. That’s not a term I ordinarily use, but what a pair of academic physicists chose to apply to those who didn’t agree with them on viable pathways to nuclear demilitarization.

Because demilitarization of nuclear weapons is an issue coming inexorably to the foreground, several flavors of expertise are needed. Mine comes from hands-on experience in nuclear methodology, reactor experiments, arms-treaty analysis, and verification technology. Moreover, I have analyzed and published extensively on the subject of plutonium demilitarization for over 30 years.

Unfortunately, a stumbling block for plutonium demilitarization includes NGO individuals with whom I collaborated just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This topical Knol is at odds with the views of some former associates, mostly from America and Western Europe, but notably not at all in disagreement with former Soviet colleagues.


Outspoken Opponents of Plutonium Demilitarization

(Delays and Missteps in Nuclear Demilitarization)

Part 4 of 5


What Expertise is Relevant to Nuclear Demilitarization?

Limitations of Government Service

Perspective on Relevant Expertise


Who Is Obdurate?

Selective Interpretation of Weapon-Lab Statements

Against the Dual-Track Plan

Usability of Reactor-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons

How to Simplify (But Avoid Dealing With) the Plutonium Problem

Stalling Peaceful Conversion of Siberian Plutonium-Production Reactors

Closed-City Legacy

Reprocessing Alternatives.

Alternative Energy Sources

Lack of Safety Features

Inadvisable Intervention

Further Delays Reported

Mischaracterization of Disarmament

Remarks on Context

References for Demilitarization Opposition


This fourth of my five Nuclear Proliferation Knols deals with obdurate opponents of plutonium demilitarization.


Part 1: Nuclear Demilitarization Overview

Part 2: Supporting Details on Nuclear Demilitarization

Part 3: Controversy about Demilitarizing Plutonium

Part 4: Outspoken Opponents of Plutonium Demilitarization

Part 5: Getting Demilitarization on Track


What Expertise is Relevant to Nuclear Demilitarization?

The demilitarization of nuclear weapons is an issue coming inexorably to the foreground. Its multi-dimensional complexity demands several types of expertise, including nuclear and reactor physics. That is the foundation for my involvement, with particular attention to arms-control treaty-verification analysis and technology.

      Having retired from public-funded government employment, I consider myself obligated to contribute pro bono publico to the pacification of nuclear weapons and materials.

      Unfortunately, a stumbling block to this goal includes a number of Non-Government Organization (NGO) individuals with whom I collaborated just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much of this five-part Knol is at odds with the views of some NGO associates, mostly from the American and Western European nations, but notably not former Soviet colleagues (one of whom is coauthor of Nuclear Shadowboxing). [1]

      In my Knol “Nuclear Expertise – How Defined,” I identified “experiential” limitations — shortcomings in relevant experience and qualifications — of some outspoken individuals in regard to nuclear arms-control and nonproliferation. In fact, particular demilitarization delays and missteps can be attributed to some of these colleagues, notably for the decade-long hiatus in reaching a agreement with North Korea, for lack of progress in converting Siberian plutonium reactors, for stalling nuclear power growth in the United States, for misrepresenting the weaponizability of reactor-grade plutonium, and for poor scholarship that has sustained radiophobia. 

Limitations of Government Service. [The paragraphs on this topic are taken from my Knol on “Nuclear Expertise.”]

      One should not mislead or be mislead by “government” credentials regardless of title. In my experience, the higher the bureaucratic level, the less time available to indulge in technical understanding.

      During my tenure at Argonne National Laboratory, I visited or worked at many nuclear-related governmental laboratories, facilities, and bureaucracies in the United States, and travel to many foreign governmental offices (see my résumé). During military service and laboratory employment, I had access to high levels of classified information.

      Yet, classified technical information can be illusory if you lack the expertise to interpret details or are not sufficiently familiar with the context. Other than specific matters of policy or historical interest, most technical concepts could be figured out by logical and public processes — not the details, mind you, but certainly many concepts. In any event, it was difficult to sort through competing claims coming from weapons laboratories, armed services, private contractors, and government agencies if without suitable background or guided access.

      One bureaucratic barrier to information sharing is compartmentalization of sensitive information. As a result, limited access is available to “need-to-know” information from other departments, agencies, or laboratories.

      It has not been difficult for government researchers or officials to dodge behind stratified secrecy classifications. Too often one hears or implies, “If you knew what I knew….” Yet, in 50 years of access to sensitive information, I don’t recall insider access displacing fundamental science, engineering, or logic.

      Security stratification and compartmentalization are necessary to protect sensitive government information, military plans, and technical details from outsiders. However, the process inadvertently prevents insiders without a specific “need-to-know” from gaining access or knowledge of its existence. Even in high levels of government service, bureaucratic barriers are prohibitive.

Perspective on Relevant Expertise. [Extracted from my Knol on Nuclear Expertise].

Expertise isn’t fungible; it can’t be bought or transferred; it’s accumulated from sometimes-tedious, but aggregate years of hands-on experience. Nor is anyone’s accumulated expertise is unique or exclusive; some individuals have relevant knowledge or experience subsets that include skills and understanding of energy released in fission or fusion, or of policies and implications regarding nuclear weapons. These knowledge fields overlap and supplement each other; there are no islands of expertise.

      Professional conferences and lectures are a common adjunct for keeping up to date, but they do not contribute directly to hands-on experience in the functioning of complex equipment. The same can be said about presentations, lectures, and facility visits; these are an integral aspect of technical development, but they are not substitutes for actual laboratory or field development, construction, experimentation, and analysis.

      Two circumstances have made it possible for this detailed critique of mine that you are reading (about nuclear expertise) to surface in an open, candid, and now timely format. One happenstance is that most of us who gained significant hands-on technical experience during the Cold War have retired from our laboratories, and are thus no longer tightly bound by (formidable) institutional restraints against participating in public issues. Another factor is that Google has provided this Knol platform for open publication, a magnificent opportunity which bypasses institutional limitations and maddening delays. (Legal, ethical, security, professional, and commonsense encumbrances remain, of course.) Another novel prospect is that this new forum provides an avenue for judicious vigilance and topical comments that might modify or strengthen the role of credentialed expertise in the advancement of knowledge.

Disclaimer. Because it will be necessary to critique the involvement of fellow arms-control and nonproliferation advocates, some context will be provided here in order to lessen the appearance of animosity and narrow the range of disagreement.

      As recited with considerable detail in Nuclear Shadowboxing, I have had a mutually rewarding collegial and friendly personal relationship with many individuals mentioned in this particular Knol. One particular reason has been on our shared goals regarding nuclear-arms control and nonproliferation. I stress that our disagreements are mostly about means, not ends.

      Through the aegis of NGOs such as the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Council, I sometimes participated as a private citizen in activities organized by Frank von Hippel and Tom Cochran. My specific contribution was as a nuclear expert who was able to participate because I was from a “peace” lab. As a result, I got to know them personally and to appreciate their depth of personal commitment, as well as their technical knowledge limitations and my institutional constraints.

      Because they have devoted much of their adult lives as highly dedicated public-interest advocates, with many successes under their belt, nothing here should detract from those unique and commendable achievements.

      As a partially-paid, mostly volunteer technical consultant, I contributed to an unofficial colloquy between Soviet and American scientists and policymakers. (There were some parallel NGO activities going on at the same time — see Nuclear Shadowboxing.) One published record of our joint undertaking was a Soviet- and American-authored 1990 account about the nuclear arms race. [2] Although the Soviet contributors to the book were mostly technical experts at their highest levels, U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratory personnel were not allowed to participate directly at the time. As a result, the American papers were written by mostly academic, highly motivated individuals such as Frank von Hippel, Steve Fetter, David Albright, Marvin Miller, Tom Cochran, and Hal Feiveson. One of my substantive roles was technical review and editing of the contributions.

      Two retired nuclear-weapons experts, Ted Taylor and J. Carson Mark, were able to participate, from time to time, in the overall project, but were restrained in what they could acknowledge about nuclear design and detail.

      Throughout this period, roughly five years before and after demise of the USSR, we worked together on common interests, but knowingly sidelined divergent opinions regarding what was then a secondary issue, civilian nuclear power — its safety, security, and future.

      Since then, the quasi-technical issue of plutonium demilitarization has come to the fore, dividing some colleagues.


Who Is Obdurate?

Plutonium demilitarization, despite its intrinsic arms-control and nonproliferation value, has not gained traction; it has been caught up in an ongoing ideological dispute over nuclear power. Part of the resistance can be traced to nuclear obstructionists, who are opposed to nuclear power regardless of compensatory benefits. Others averse to nuclear power might be called nuclear abstractionists because they tend to accept some nuclear applications, while objecting to others.

      Up front, I of course recognize the legitimacy and the need for informed dissent. Having been in such a position for many issues, especially in opposition to excessive nuclear militarization, neither I nor anyone else should demean that respected role of thoughtful dissenters. That said, sometimes it is necessary to be stubborn about reasoned and reconsidered positions. Because it is incumbent on all of us to stick to specifics and avoid the distraction of labels, it is with reticence and undiminished personal respect that I must identify some individuals by name in order to challenge their underlying views, published statements, or individual actions about nuclear demilitarization.

      Frank von Hippel and Amory Lovins are two prominent outspoken opponents of plutonium demilitarization. Examination of their papers and presentations reveals that both tend to omit evidence and citations that contradict their position on the supposed weaponization qualities of reactor and demilitarized grades of plutonium. While short in relevant credentials, each has been actively impeding arms-control and nonproliferation measures described below.

      In the other five Knols on plutonium demilitarization, I have been usually been able to avoid associating individual names with my critique. Because of the necessity of having specific citations, that is not a reasonable course of action in this Knol. Moreover, by citing specific names, those individuals are explicitly invited to post clarifying comments at the end of this Knol.

Selective Interpretation of Weapon-Lab Statements. Princeton Professor Frank von Hippel, a chronic opponent of plutonium demilitarization, has relied selectively on a 1993 paper by a leading nuclear-weapons laboratory theorist, J.Carson Mark. However, an earlier 1990 Nuclear Control Institute predecessor publication contains Mark’s defining conclusion about the role of inferior nuclear materials; it is far more carefully wrought than commonly realized:

Taking “weapon” to signify an object suitable for stockpile by a military organization, then heavily irradiated reactor plutonium would not be attractive for an arsenal of pure fission devices. [Emphasis added]

      In Mark’s terminology, “pure fission devices” included essentially any type of nuclear weapon that proliferant nations might seek to develop. His phrase “heavily irradiated reactor plutonium” corresponded to what is now called “reactor-grade plutonium.” (During private, one-on-one discussions with Mark, he confirmed his defining 1990 conclusion, and he didn’t know how or why it was omitted in the 1993 version.)

      Mark’s defining syllogism for a “weapon” was as specific as possible. By his criteria, reactor-grade plutonium is not a viable constituent in military stockpiles. In contrast to an ad-hoc group, national military organizations have high standards for an extraordinarily devastating weapon designed to be safely stored during peacetime and reliably delivered under wartime conditions. Mark distinctly advises that national arsenals would not be made out of inferior materials (and no nation is known to have militarily exploited substandard fissile substances).

      Some individuals have chosen to interpret Mark’s conclusion differently, arguing that because it is possible to make nuclear explosives out of “heavily irradiated reactor plutonium,” nations would actually undertake an expensive and clandestine development program using materials that would lead to uncertain results. Such a suggestion defies engineering logic and historical experience.

      Von Hippel has persistently overstated the supposed weaponization qualities of reactor and demilitarized grades of plutonium. Although deficient in direct experience — particularly with nuclear engineering, nuclear weaponization, quality control, and military organizations — he has cavalierly reinterpreted and widely exploited his interpretation of Carson Mark’s published conclusion. Von Hippel has assumed that lack of attractiveness implies that the fissile composition is based on some undefined convenience factor rather than meaningful military standards.

      Even with ample analytical experience, and presumably access to some classified information while serving briefly in a government bureaucracy, Von Hippel has persistently underrated the fundamental complexity of nuclear-weapons physics and engineering. He and his acolytes rely on second-hand assurances instead of fundamental specifics about the difficulties in weaponizing degraded plutonium. Von Hippel has employed poorly substantiated “worst-case” methodology to exaggerate the weaponizability of reactor-grade and degraded plutonium. This has lead him to support flawed and overly expensive propositions for less-effective options than offered by the U.S. Department of Energy to demilitarize and salvage the latent energy and economic value of surplus plutonium.

Against the Dual-Track Plan. More than a decade ago, physics professors Marvin Miller and Frank von Hippel advised against implementing MOX irradiation of weapons plutonium. [3] Being disputed at the time was DOE’s decision to “dispose of much of the excess [weapons] plutonium by fabricating it into ‘mixed-oxide’ (MOX) fuel, which would be burned in civilian power reactors.” This decision was in accord with the latest recommendations (see Part 3 , “Controversy on Demilitarizing Plutonium”) of the National Academy of Sciences, which progressed to contradict the two professors.

      Miller and von Hippel have vigorously, repeatedly, and influentially opposed anything but plutonium “immobilization” (burial) for both Russia and the United States. Russia, not surprisingly, made its own choice of MOX burnup, while the United States eventually undertook a compromise, the “dual-track” route — parallel MOX plutonium incineration in parallel with attempted development of immobilization. While MOX incineration of plutonium is proceeding well, immobilization — a decade and many dollars later — is yet to surmount its inherent and predictable technical, procedural, and target deficiencies.

      What a waste of time, money, and conservancy on a patently inferior means of plutonium disposition! Despite vigorous dissent from experienced professionals, the immobilization advocates kept their hopes up, though primarily in the United States, not in Russia.

      Here is part of my response to the Miller-Von Hippel advice:

Adhering to a course now forsaken by the National Academy of Sciences, Miller and von Hippel want surplus Russian plutonium “immobilized” underground without reducing its military potential. A better plan would be to press for demilitarization of weapon-grade plutonium and accept immoblilization of reactor-grade materials….

The Academy’s review concluded that there were “nonproliferation liabilities” in not moving ahead with “imposing some built-in [isotopic] barriers to the reuse of military plutonium.” Such isotopic barriers were the reason why Cold War nuclear arsenals were not made from low-grade materials. MOX burnup irreversibly demilitarized weapons plutonium.

Miller and von Hippel admit that “immobilized plutonium would be recoverable for reuse,” conceding the potential “breakout advantage” from immobilization. So why are they advocating immobilization? Evidently they believe proliferation risks stemming from unreated civil plutonium to be more dangerous than the nuclear breakout potential from recoverable weapons plutonium.

Despite the claims of professors Miller and von Hippel that “a more sophiticated…argument has recently surfaced,” the comparative benefits of irreversible isotopic demilitarization wee recognized decades ago.

The persistent labeling of plutonium as “weapons usable” — and imprecise and ambiguous term — obscures the crucial fact that its isotopic quality significantly affects a weapons’ yield, reliability, complexity, and ease of manufacture. As evidence, one need look no further than the lengths to which weapons’ developers have gone, without exception, to get high-grade plutonium.

      Other publications and statements by Miller and Von Hippel provide an example of conflictive interests engendered by this topic. In a letter published July 1997, they labeled as “irrelevant” the potential outcome of declassification of information on the 1962 test. [4] Yet, for more than 40 years the test results have been used as a foundation of U.S. nonproliferation policies (see Part 2 of this Knol series on Demilitarization).

      The professors even conjured up the specter of an Iraqi reactor-grade plutonium “truck bomb,” while dismissing Iraq’s actual and considered choice to pursue uranium-based military-quality weapons. They also ignored the reality that all other nuclear-weapons states have deliberately chosen only high-quality fissile materials.

      The title of this Knol’s subsection is derived from the 1997 “Perspective” by Miller and von Hippel [Emphasis added]:

This obdurateness [referring to skepticism about the suitability of reactor-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons] — redolent of the general unwillingness of the tobacco industry to acknowledge the health risks of smoking — reflects an obvious fact: Once one recognizes that reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make weapons, it becomes difficult to justify the commercial separation of plutonium.

      Inasmuch as their influence had eroded, it is no wonder that Miller and von Hippel blurred the issues by using imprecise labels and jargon in their publication. Repetitious use of poorly defined and ambiguous language, applying the label “weapons-usable” indiscriminately to all grades of plutonium, has revealed more commitedness than scholarship.

Usability of Reactor-Grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons. When Miller and Von Hippel wrote a response in 1977 [5] to my published “skepticism” regarding the 1962 nuclear test of the weaponizability of reactor-grade plutonium, [6] it was apparent that they had been coached by U.S. weapons- and policy-makers. Evidently the government briefings were accepted without question.

      In their “Reply,” Miller and Von Hippel simply transitioned government allocutions that “reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons at all levels of technical sophistication” into a purported “fact,” irrespective of a half-century without any such weapons being made.

      Miller and Von Hippel “briefly [outlined] the technical basis for this conclusion within the limits of current classification.” Had they realized that their information was derived from carefully managed access granted to highly compartmentalized information, their brief outline might have been more credible.

      As prompted by the U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories, their argument echoed conventional wisdom, frequently morphing into asserted capability about implemented actuality, leaving the less-sophisticated person instructed, but not really enlightened. Regarding international nuclear-weapons history, they ignored South Africa, which selected uranium rather than plutonium for their arsenal, and they disregarded those nations that flirted with nuclear proliferation without ever choosing reactor-grade plutonium.

      The proliferator’s path is clearly conditioned by physical, engineering, political, economic, and concealment imperatives. These have led to the real world propensity for weapon-grade material in nuclear weapons manufactured or envisioned.

      By advising, absent evidence, that “there is a correlation between the technical capability of states or subnational groups to use reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons,” they jumped another quantum level. Baseless conjectures about Iraq desiring to produce a “truck-bomb” of low-grade plutonium haven’t kept Miller and Von Hippel from being wedded to “facts” served up to them by the U.S. government.

      They simply offer sympathy — but not support — for declassification of the 1962 test parameter authoritatively claiming that the 1962 test data, if declassified, would be “irrelevant.”

      Replacing actuality with possibility is not justified by zeal — however commendable — to control nuclear materials. Even though all grades of plutonium need safeguarded management, the potential dangers of reactor-grade plutonium should not be exaggerated, no more than the proximate threats of weapon-grade materials be slighted.

      Miller and Von Hippel hold a fervent belief that “reactor-grade plutonium can be used to make weapons at all levels of technical sophistication.” If that were valid, then the public, our Congress, and our policymakers must have been subjected to a half-century fraud perpetrated by weapons designers who spent huge sums of public money for gold fillings: high-quality weapon-grade plutonium instead of the cheaper and more abundant reactor-grade plutonium..

      In terms of priority, I am less dismayed by excessive anxiety over international proliferation than I am about the limited headway that has been made to demilitarize existing nuclear arsenals.

How to Simplify (But Avoid Dealing With) the Plutonium Problem. In a 1998 article published in an overseas magazine, [7] Von Hippel, cavalierly advised that “Plutonium separated from fuel in nuclear power reactors can easily be stolen and is directly usable in weapons.” Each of his premises — that it “can easily be stolen,’and that it is “directly usable in weapons” — is the type of politicized assertion that would reflect service in a federal bureaucracy, than qualified reckoning as a scientist.

      In attempting to influence U.K. analysis of plutonium conversion, he challenged as “misinformation” the Royal Society’s recommendations. He argued against reprocessing spent fuel to recover its energy and economic value on the grounds that “enormous growth projected for nuclear power did not materialize.” Von Hippel also criticized the “vision” of a “plutonium-based energy economy…embraced by virtually all the nuclear establishments….”

      Von Hippel’s advice that “The surest anti-proliferation measure is to stop reprocessing spent fuel,” would have precluded MOX burnup of weapons plutonium. Since losing his dual-track challenge on the American side of the pond, he was advising the Brits on “How to solve the problem” by exchanging its reactor-grade plutonium for unprocessed foreign spent fuel. He also advised against reprocessing services being put into operation at a commercial plant in England.

      His proposals, rightfully ignored, would not simplify — only temporarily avoid — the “plutonium problem” that he helped create through persistent lobbying.


Stalling Peaceful Conversion of Siberian Plutonium-Production Reactors

Among specific objectives set by the United States for Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction assistance was the shutdown of three plutonium-production reactors situated in Siberia. As urged on by NGOs and committed individuals, such as Von Hippel and Tom Cochran, this program became an ill-conceived nonproliferation initiative. As worthy as their goals might have seemed, the initiative was misguided from the beginning and mishandled throughout. The intervention was attempted despite dissent from better informed and more neutral scientists.

      After the Cold War, out of 13 Soviet plutonium-production reactors, three remained operational in Russia: one in Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26) and two at Seversk (Tomsk-7). [8] The dual (civilian and military)-purpose graphite-moderated reactors continued in operation to supply essential hot water for district-heating systems of the two Siberian cities, with steam produced by the reactors adding some power to the local electrical grids.

      Because plutonium is an unavoidable but controlled byproduct, the reactors constituted a continuing source of fissile material that could hypothetically be diverted to weapons. Three factors in particular militated against such diversion:

(1) Russia’s post-Cold-War dismantlement of nuclear weapons resulted in a huge surplus of weapon-grade plutonium; so it had no military need to separate more.

(2) Left unseparated, the mixture is so hazardous that it is essentially diversion proof and militarily unusable.

(3) Longer reactor operating cycles would optimize civilian economics and drain plutonium of weaponization quality.

      However, in the minds of “obdurate” activists, plutonium in any form constitutes a proliferation risk. Ever since the breakup of the USSR, some have persisted in calling for the three reactors in Russia to be shut down without realistic alternatives. After learning that essential heat and electricity production could not be interrupted, they suggested replacement with polluting fossil-fueled plants, and later advocated converting the reactor cores so that less weapons plutonium would be produced. All of these would have been costly, politically impractical, or unduly harsh for the region’s economy, employment, and environment. Moreover, proliferation concerns were exaggerated and misdirected. What should have been emphasized was practical, cost-effective improvements in the reactors’ operational safety, physical security, and materials control (see below).

Closed-City Legacy. Seversk and Zheleznogorsk were among the 10 “closed cities” that were at the heart of the Soviet Union’s huge nuclear weapons production industry.

      Built in the 1940s and early 1960s, these so-called nuclear cities housed more than 170,000 people, mostly nuclear power workers and their families. These communities, used to receiving the best of everything until the end of the Cold War, are now facing the prospect of wide-ranging job losses as their reactors and reprocessing plants close.

      Russia has also worried about the repercussions of large-scale unemployment among its nuclear specialists. Layoffs on the proposed scale may well pose significant proliferation risks when nuclear weapons scientists and technologists are forced to seek work elsewhere.

      Washington considered creating jobs in Russia in a bid to head off fishing expeditions by rogue states or terrorist organizations keen to net nuclear expertise from the pool of unemployed Russian scientists.

Reprocessing Alternatives. Because Russia is oversupplied with military plutonium, excess supplies produced in the three reactors would not impact strategic arms control. Furthermore, no fissile-production cutoff treaty existed to make a shutdown equitable and politically acceptable.

      A practical alternative to shutdown would have been to modify the reactor fuel and mode of operation so as to minimize or avoid production of weapon-grade materials. Implementing this as an interim measure, the plutonium produced would not have been suitable for military-quality weapons and the fuel cycle could have been managed so that fissile materials were not separated from highly radioactive fission products. In addition, operational safety of the reactor could have been upgraded during modifications.

      However, anti-nuclear militants had such an enduring hangup about the military value of civil plutonium, that they gave nebulous “potential” proliferation much greater priority than reactor safety and environmental preservation.

      Another hangup has been spent-fuel reprocessing. Uranium-fueled civil reactors produce low-grade plutonium, and it is technically possible to separate plutonium from radioactive co-products of spent fuel. With expectations of a rapidly growing nuclear economy came a concomitant need to recycle plutonium into reactor fuel. However, commercial recycling has so far been neither economical nor prudent; so spent fuel is now being processed once only in a manner that incorporates plutonium into a diversion-resistant mix with radioactive fission products.

      It is not in Russia’s national-security interests to export or allow illicit diversion of plutonium to non-nuclear-weapons states. Nevertheless, prodded by influential anti-nuclear activists, DOE tried to reach agreement with Russia’s MINATOM to suspend reprocessing of civil-reactor-generated spent fuel. [9] From Western economic and proliferation viewpoints, reprocessing may not be the wisest option for Russia, but it has important domestic value — such as keeping spent fuel in a stable condition and making long-term byproduct disposition easier to carry out.

Alternative Energy Sources. Another conceivable option would have been to finance the construction of non-nuclear sources of heat and electricity, in particular coal, oil, or natural gas. This was explored at considerable programmatic cost and delay. In any event, replacing the reactors with coal-fired plants would be an unhealthy choice, more chronically polluting and dangerous to health and safety of individuals than nuclear power.

      Thus, while reasonably practical alternatives existed, most of them had significant hurdles to overcome, especially when viewed through the prism of a recently failed nation and economy.

Lack of Safety Features. Unlike U.S. reactors, the Siberian reactors lack essential safety features such as concrete containment domes capable of holding radiation in case of an accident leading to major leaks. They have deficiencies in the areas of design, equipment and materials.

      In the minds of nuclear engineers, immediate remedies and continuing upgrades should have been given the highest priority. But,Because of their plutonium obsession, Western interventionists assigned insufficient priority to the more urgent need for upgrading physical security and safety of the reactors, including the option of replacing them with modern, safer reactors.

      The former production reactors in Siberia are similar to the Chernobyl design that had a serious criticality accident in 1986. These three reactors lacked rudimentary Western-style safety features, such as emergency-core cooling and negative loss-of-coolant coefficients, which greatly mitigate accidental chain-reaction excursions.

      If U.S. money had been applied to reactor-safety upgrades of the existing reactors, their operational safety could have been significantly improved and their weapon-grade plutonium production reduced. Moreover, facility security and materials control could have been impressively improved. The upgrade option could have been adopted early in the 1990s with phased minimal shutdown.

      DOE’s indecision and inaction were a predictable outcome of allowing parochial anti-nuclear-power obstructionists to dominate the intra-governmental decision process, thus losing time, funds, and opportunity.

Inadvisable Intervention. Frank von Hippel and Matthew Bunn have chronicled their knowledge of the wasteful saga, which included ill-fated, time-consuming efforts to substitute coal- and oil-fired plants and later to convert the reactor-fuel cores to a more diversion-resistant composition.[10] Von Hippel and Bunn provided a first-hand recollection of their involvement in trying to shut down or convert the Siberian reactors. Although the two professors recognized the need for improved safety and security, their fixation was on plutonium production and separation.

      Western involvement had been based on a mixture of European apprehension over inadequate safety of the 30-year-old Soviet reactors and U.S. fixation over their continued production of high-grade plutonium. Lack of interagency coordination and cooperation between DOE and DOD resulted in some U.S. support programs being carried out at cross-purposes. The separate roles of government agencies, lacking coordination at the highest governmental level during the Clinton administration, lead to — according to one nonproliferation-policy expert — a loss of numerous opportunities to enhance their impact (with Von Hippel being one of the officials then at the highest governmental level).5 In addition, interventionists obviously gave little weight to analysis and choices preferred by Russian scientists and policymakers.

      The reactor cores were loaded with aluminum-clad fuel elements originally intended to be irradiated only a few months and then easily dissolved in acid to facilitate recovery of plutonium. Operating the reactors much longer can cause fuel element cladding to fail more easily and become unsuitable for long-term storage. In routine operation, the depleted (and unstable) elements are chemically processed, at which time the separated plutonium is placed in secure storage, adding about 0.6 percent annually to the Russian plutonium stockpile.

      In their article, Von Hippel and Bunn recite how reactor-core conversion (to a form that would produce less weapon-grade plutonium) became a casualty of what they perceived to be “nasty” U.S. government and laboratory turf wars. While the turf battles indeed delayed progress, Von Hippel’s policy direction was doomed because it was based on questionable premises regarding the proliferation value of depleted and irradiated spent fuel: If he had his way, significant U.S. resources would have been applied to preventing a highly improbable diversion of plutonium. The intervention evidently contributed to sidetracking reactor security and safety improvements.

      One U.S. weapons laboratory, Pacific Northwest, managed to gain the ear of policymakers with a proposal for core conversion that would result in storable spent-fuel. However, they advised replacing natural uranium with enriched uranium, the latter even more of a diversion and proliferation risk than irradiated plutonium. This resulted in more studies being authorized.

      In the meantime, the proposal for operation of the Siberian reactors with a new enriched-core design opened up a safety review by the Russian nuclear-licensing agency, GAN, which otherwise did not then have such a mandate. Safety upgrades had already been carried out for the existing reactors, but the U.S. weapons-lab specialists attempted to dismiss questions raised about safe operation with a new highly-enriched uranium core.[11]

      Another troubling dispute was over the U.S.-RF agreement to monitor plutonium produced at the Siberian reactors and to verify shutdown of other Russian production reactors. The dispute was aggravated by U.S.-proposed asymmetries in requirements for monitoring and information-disclosure.

      A decade later, little had been accomplished for the Siberian reactors, which might be closed after fossil plants are constructed, despite the poor environmental record for coal.

      According to Von Hippel and Bunn, the saga.[12]

illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of outside ideas and peer review. Sometimes outside ideas provoke new thinking without being quite on target…. Independent experts from outside can be crucial in providing fresh perspectives, examining the validity of key assumptions, and offering informal channels of communication. But peer review cannot play its role if the key information is not made available….

The lesson: [some] regularized approach to getting peer review from independent experts.

      Regrettably, Von Hippel and Bunn did not heed their own advice; they could have sought experienced input from professional groups like the American Physical Society, the American Nuclear Society, or qualified members of the Federation of American Scientists.

      Von Hippel and Bunn later complained that “plutonium continues to accumulate in storage — with no verification of its non-use for weapons in place….” (But, more significantly, safety upgrades were delayed as a consequence of this misguided saga.)

      Judging from their own report, it looks like Von Hippel and Bunn became part of the problem; they didn’t get qualified assistance from unbiased technical experts until too late (and didn’t seek help from, or listen to, experienced professionals in the field).

Further Delays Reported.

(The Washington Post, H. Josef Hebert, 28 May 2003):

The Energy Department announced a $466 million deal Tuesday to build two coal-burning power plants for Russia in return for a Russian promise to close three plutonium-producing reactors considered among the most dangerous in the world.

[It] will be five to eight years before the Russian reactors will shut down and stop making plutonium.

While the Russians have agreed to halt plutonium production and dispose of 34 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium that is already stockpiled, they have refused to shut down the three reactors until a way is found to replace the electricity and industrial heat the reactors produce for nearby communities.

“They’re the most dangerous reactors they’ve got,” said … the top Energy Department official involved in nuclear nonproliferation issues. And, he adds, “when you have three reactors producing enough plutonium for three bombs a week, you want to [deal with them] as fast as you can”

As part of the agreement, the U.S. government would arrange for the replacement power. “Replacing these reactors with fossil fuel energy is critical to eliminate the production of weapon-grade plutonium in Russia and closing these facilities….”

(The Observer, Moscow, 31 Oct. 2003):

Russia has lifted its ban on foreigners at two secret military settlements in Siberia as a first step in retiring its most dangerous surviving, Soviet-designed, nuclear power plants.

This groundbreaking deal between Russia and the U.S. will, when fully worked through, complete a nuclear threat reduction program and end plutonium production in both countries. But the situation, ironically, is complicated because the demise of obsolete Siberian reactors could increase the prospect of nuclear proliferation by making thousands of Russian military scientists and technicians redundant and encouraging them to seek work abroad.

       The three condemned reactors are 40 years old; their design is the one from which Soviet nuclear engineers learned lessons in order to build the now-infamous Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine — the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Urgent safety upgrades are being prepared by the Russian and U.S. experts involved in the program even during the phase-out period in order to avert a meltdown.

[Although the reactors produce enough unseparated plutonium for approximately one nuclear weapon every 36 hours], they also generate heat and electricity for the surrounding communities and will continue to operate until low-emission, efficient coal-fired plants are put in place.

       The revitalized Seversk coal project will have to produce 1810 megawatts-thermal (MWt) of energy and the Zheleznogorsk project 765 MWt in order to make up for the energy lost through the closure of the old reactors. The plants are the last of Russia’s original 13 plutonium-producing reactors slated to be dismantled. The United States already shut down all of its own 14 plutonium production reactors.

      A report drawn up by Russian nuclear regulators and provided to U.S. officials stated that the three surviving military reactors are in such poor physical condition that their forced conversion to civilian use could result in a serious accident.

      When U.S. inspectors visited the plants, the gave priority to a series of urgent safety upgrades proposed by Russian experts in order to avert a disaster during the final phase and shutdown of the reactors.


Mischaracterization of Disarmament

One way to undermine the potential for nuclear-arsenal reduction is by semantic obfuscation, an example of which was published recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[13] The maneuver takes advantage of poor or selected terminology and overly ambitious politicized statements, such as the goal of nuclear “abolition” advocated by well-meaning, but technologically uninformed individuals.

      Terms like “abolition,” “disarmament,” and “elimination” are absolutes that have currency in polemics, but no meaningful role in systematic arms control and treaty verification. On the other hand, corresponding relative goals of enumerated reductions, nuclear-weapons demilitarization, and treaty-defined verification represent more meaningful professional terminology.

      Here’s an example of the how worthy goals can be demeaned. Mike May, an esteemed Cold War director of DOE’s Livermore nuclear-weapons laboratory, in a recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article, envisions“trouble with nuclear disarmament.” The alleged “trouble,” though, largely results from May’s lack of definitions, or his cagey choice of them.

      May challenges “whether total nuclear disarmament is even possible.” “Prominent” former policymakers have indeed “argued for … nuclear disarmament,” as he says, but less-prominent experienced arms-control and verification “experts” such as myself support significant nuclear reductions. With the latter differentiation, a limited drawdown of nuclear arsenals becomes both feasible, verifiable, and irreversible.

      As May sensibly points out, “nuclear weapons will always be at least latently available.” But it doesn’t follow that “the elimination of nuclear weapons would itself have to be taken on faith.” Here’s where definitions matter: He means elimination of all nuclear weapons on earth, whereas most of us more modestly expect that under a treaty, a specified number of existing weapons are to be destroyed verifiably. May’s strawman clearly can’t be satisfied, but out of the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in arsenals now, the verifiable demilitarization of, say, 20,000 would be a significant reduction.

      Although technology “cannot ascertain initial inventories,” as he asserts, it need not do so as long as we can “keep track of… material flows,” that is, formally verify — which is what many us worked on at DOE laboratories — for nuclear-weapons dismantlement and fissile-material demilitarization.

      When May refers to “The impossibility of verifying complete disarmament,” I really can’t disagree; but when he argues against simply moving in that direction, I do have to dissent. We do demonstrably have the means and motivation to make significant reductions in nuclear arsenals, while still preserving national security.


Remarks on Context

The saga of the Siberian reactors may soon come to a pacifying end: only money will tell. Artificial distortions — caused by well-intended, but misdirected ideological agendas — have resulted in a lot of wasted time, money, and credibility.

      Although well-intentioned in opposing proliferation, certain individuals have had what I consider an counterproductive influence on national and international nuclear policies. While respecting good intentions, I fault their choice of crusades and tactics. Their maneuvers have resulted in delays for arms control and nonproliferation (our agreed goals) and misapprehension about benign uses (our differing perceptions) of modern nuclear power and technology.

      At least one of the aforementioned individuals (Frank von Hippel) has also had a history of having exaggerated the public-radiation consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. (See my Knol “Nuclear Expertise: How Defined.”)

      What I have attempted here is a distillation of missteps and misdirection that negatively influence or delay nuclear demilitarization. In some cases we jointly seek demilitarization, while we disagree on the means and effectiveness.

      Specifically, misdirection has resulted in the National Academy of Sciences taking more than a decade to recommend a viable standard and a methodology for plutonium demilitarization. At fault also is the consensus approach, which often reduces agreement to the least common denominator.

      The evidence on hand indicates that one should be more circumspect about the technical guidance offered by the American nuclear-weapons complex. While some of the technology for nuclear explosions is and should be closely safeguarded, the science of nuclear reactions is in the public providence. This science strongly supports the long-term proficiency of nuclear demilitarization.

      It’s difficult to unoffendingly criticize comrades who have similar goals; yet in the sciences it is not unusual to be temporarily on one side or the other. Respectfully, then, I challenge their disregard of plutonium demilitarization by reactor burnup. I know this often causes consternation because it implies a continued growth of nuclear power; however, as described in this five-part series, there is a very good case that reactor incineration of weapons plutonium is the best way, now and in the reasonable future, to proceed for demilitarization of weapons-grade fissile materials.[14]


References for Demilitarization Opposition

1. A. DeVolpi, V.E. Minkov, V.A. Simonenko, and G.S. Stanford, Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats From Cold War Weaponry (http://www.NuclearShadowboxing.Info).

2. F.v. Hippel and R.Z. Sagdeev (Eds.), Reversing the Arms Race: How to Achieve and Verify Deep Reductions in the Nuclear Arsenals, Gordon and Breach, NY (1990).

3. Marvin Miller and Frank von Hippel, “Let’s reprocess the MOX plan,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July/Aug. 1997).

4. Marvin Miller and Frank von Hippel, “Usability of Reactor-grade Plutonium in Nuclear Weapons: A Reply to Alex DeVolpi,” Physics & Society (July 1997).

5. Miller and Von Hippel, op cit.

6. A. DeVolpi, “A Coverup of Nuclear-Test Information,” Physics and Society (Oct. 1996).

7. Frank N. Von Hippel, “How to simplify the plutonium problem,” Nature (July 1998).

8. F.N. von Hippel and M. Bunn, “Saga of the Siberian Plutonium-Production Reactors,” FAS Public Interest Report (Nov./Dec. 2000).

9. Arms Control Today (March 2000).

10. Von Hippel and Bunn, op cit.

11. L.S. Spector, “Missing the Forest for the Trees: U.S. Non-Proliferation Programs in Russia,” Arms Control Today (June 2001).

12. Von Hippel and Bunn, op cit.

13. Michael May, “The trouble with disarmament,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Nov,/Dec. 2008).

14. My File: NWP4.obdurates.013.wpd November 22, 2008


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.