One of the knotty little problems that U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson will inherit when he becomes secretary of Energy is what to do with some 50 tons of surplus plutonium, the hottest nuclear fuel around, enough to fashion about 10,000 bombs.
Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, Richardson needs to reassess plans for disposing of this stuff. The nuclear tests in India and Pakistan are fresh in mind, and an energy chief should judge those alarming programs against this nation's long-held opposition to nuclear proliferation.
It's true that Washington's nonproliferation policy did not prevent India and Pakistan from developing their own bombs. But if the United States is to officially preach nuclear nonproliferation, it ought to practice that policy in the handling of its own bomb-making materials.
Back in 1996, a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended a two-track approach for disposing of plutonium that was stockpiled during the Cold War. Plutonium oxide would be mixed with uranium oxide to create a fuel known as MOX for sale as fuel to commercial utility companies operating nuclear power plants.
In accepting the plan, former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said that fuel burned in commercial reactors would not be reprocessed to recover plutonium, as is done in some countries. But it could be, and that was enough for a number of scientists to become alarmed over the potential for reprocessing the fuel and creating the infrastructure for a "plutonium economy" in the United States.
Is that time coming? The Energy Department is seeking $28 million in its fiscal 1999 budget to begin work on a MOX factory at its Savannah River plant. The preferable method of disposal is to combine plutonium with highly enriched uranium waste and melt the mix into glass or a ceramic material at extremely high temperatures, a process known as vitrification. The fused material then could be safely stored in sealed canisters until a nuclear depository such as that proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is in operation.
The American strategy is to get the Russians to dispose of their plutonium too. The Russians want both sides to use the MOX process, arguing that it offers the greatest assurance that none of the plutonium will be resurrected to make bombs in some future crisis. But can we count on them? The State Department sharply criticized Moscow earlier this week for consummating the sale of two nuclear reactors to India for $3 billion.
Washington argued that the sale sends the wrong message--continued cooperation with India in nuclear economics--at a time when U.S. policy is to punish the Indians by restricting such deals. Critics of the Energy Department's plutonium disposal plan use the very same argument against this country: that it ill-behooves us to pursue nonproliferation against would-be nuclear nations while engaging in a program that might ultimately result in more plutonium being on the market.
The real problem may be that there is no way of putting the genie back in the bottle, or of ridding the Earth of plutonium. Indeed, if Europe, Japan and Russia are going to use plutonium for cheap reactor fuel--as it appears--shouldn't we? No. To do so would undermine America's moral policy against nuclear proliferation. Perhaps the first thing Richardson should do at the Department of Energy is to reaffirm that policy.