Building Starts on Plant to Convert Plutonium
Stephen Morton for The New York TimesWork beginning on Wednesday at the $4.8 billion Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in Aiken, S.C. The Energy Department plans call for the production of reactor fuel from plutonium wastes to start in 2016.
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: August 3, 2007
AIKEN, S.C., Aug. 1 â€” Construction began here this week on a factory to turn plutonium recycled from nuclear weapons into fuel for civilian power reactors, a swords-to-plowshares concept first seriously proposed more than a decade ago.
The Bush administration says the plant, which will cost an estimated $4.8 billion to build and more than $100 million a year to run, will reduce the threat of nuclear fuelâ€™s falling into the wrong hands.
Some advocates of arms control say it creates potential new risks.
â€œIt was necessary to make this material during the cold war, for U.S. national security, and itâ€™s necessary for us to dispose of it now,â€ William H. Tobey, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, said Wednesday at the site.
Across the street is a plant that for decades churned out plutonium, scavenging the precious material molecule by molecule from irradiated uranium. The work created vast tanks of nuclear waste that the Energy Department continues to work to stabilize. The conversion now to reactor fuel will create more waste.
The project is supposed to be part of a synchronized effort with Russia to destroy plutonium.
Ultimately, the plant here, as well as the plants that Moscow wants to build, could help pave the way for more use of plutonium in civil commerce. The Russians, who see the plutonium as an asset, want to use it in a new reactor that could be set up to consume plutonium faster than it creates it or that could be set up to â€œbreed,â€ making more material than it consumes.
As a result, some private arms-control experts have soured on the project.
â€œThere is not a lot of reduction in national security risk associated with this program,â€ Thomas Cochran, a weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. â€œThe U.S. might just as well store the stuff.â€
Henry D. Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, said the Aiken plant could have a role in the Bush administration plan for new reactors to recycle plutonium and other materials, producing an abundance of nuclear fuel but reducing waste value. But Mr. Sokolski and others see technical problems with that idea, called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, and suggest that it would also put more plutonium into commerce.
â€œThe program has a negative value as a nonproliferation effort,â€ Mr. Sokolski wrote in an e-mail message.
Laura Holgate, who was director of the office of fissile materials disposition in the Clinton administration, said in a telephone interview that building the plant in South Carolina was â€œthe least bad option.â€
â€œI think itâ€™s a good idea to dispose of plutonium,â€ Ms. Holgate said.
Conversion to reactor fuel would inspire the Russians to use their material in a reactor in a way that would cut the total stock, she said.
Some opposition to the fuel plant, she said, comes from people who oppose any form of nuclear power.
The beginning of work represents a milestone, though somewhat delayed. The United States and Russia agreed in 2000 that each would destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium, enough for thousands of weapons. The pact was signed, with some fanfare, by Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov of Russia.
The plan is for the plant here to begin producing reactor fuel in 2016.
Russia, plagued by financial and legal difficulties, has some of its infrastructure in place and might begin by then.
Asked about the idea that nurturing a plutonium industry could raise risks, Mr. Tobey said: â€œThis plutonium already exists. Now we need to dispose of it.â€