One of the most controversial issues with nuclear energy is nuclear waste. In particular, disposing of plutonium in such a way that it doesn't lead to proliferation. The “Plutonium Disposition Alternatives” Panel at the American Nuclear Society 2014 Annual Meeting in Reno, NV set out to shed some light on the issue and possible solutions.
The United States and Russia made an agreement to get rid of 17,000 nuclear weapons worth of plutonium back in 2000 (Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement or PMDA). There are a number of ways to dispose of plutonium, falling into two general categories:
- consuming the plutonium in either reactors or accelerators
- immobilizing it in a waste form and putting it into permanent storage
On the reactor side, a number of reactors can be used; existing light water reactors with Plutonium/Uranium Oxide fuel (Mixed Oxide or MOX), high temperature gas reactors, and fast reactors are some examples. It should be noted that plutonium generated U.S. light water reactors is not high enough purity to be used in a weapon, this program is only for getting rid of weapons plutonium. On the direct disposal side, plutonium can be vitrified (put into glass) and stored in a deep geological repository.
While some of these technologies are closer to implementation than others, all of them are technically viable. Because there are so many options, making the choice between which path to take ends up being influenced more by sociopolitical issues than by technical issues.
In the earlier 2000’s, the United States made the decision to use MOX fuel in our current generation reactors to dispose of this weapons Plutonium. The MOX facility is being built, but it is over budget and not currently in the President's budget. Russia decided to go with a fast reactor, which is currently consuming their weapons plutonium. For the U.S. to fulfill it’s commitments in the PMDA, the MOX facility will need to be built or another path will need to be investigated and taken.
It’s important for the US to be able to deliver on reduction agreements in order to be taken seriously at future nonproliferation and nuclear security negotiations. Cutting funding to the MOX project now, even if it’s only for a year, would cause even bigger delays in its construction, and also delay the actual start of US Plutonium disposition. Cutting funding completely and moving to another disposition path would likely take another decade.
What disposition path should the United States have taken?
What should the federal government do now?