When it comes to nuclear power, officials and the public tend to make projections untethered from the realities of economics or national security. Consider the current enthusiasm for “advanced” fast reactors. These make nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and reuse it as fuel. Never mind that electricity from such reactors costs a multiple of what’s produced from current reactors or that it’s impossible to keep close track of the weapons explosive plutonium they produce and consume. Congress and the Department of Energy fawn over commercializing them because they are viewed as being “advanced.” The press and public meanwhile, can’t resist celebrating the billionaire philanthropic backers of such reactors — Mr. Gates and Mr. Bezos — who now are seeking federal subsidies to support their “charitable” fast reactor dreams.
This is all exciting but if our government is serious about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to curb our enthusiasm. As Victor Gilinsky and I argue in the attached Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, “For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go,” our current ardor over fast reactors is but a revival of an old faith in plutonium-fueled reactors that has repeatedly disappointed.
In 1945, scientists thought the world was running out of uranium and that nuclear power could only progress by transmuting the globe’s vast amount of uranium 238 into fissile plutonium fuel in fast reactors. Almost as soon as the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency completed its first fast reactor, though, cheap uranium was discovered nearly everywhere. Unwilling to take yes for an answer, nuclear engineers then argued that thousands of conventional nuclear power plants would “soon” be operating and would be so popular that the world would run out of — you guessed it — uranium. That also never happened.
Put aside the frightful negative economics of playing with highly toxic plutonium fuel and the construction complexities of fast reactors, there is a profound nuclear proliferation problem with playing with plutonium that we ignore at our own peril. Plutonium can be inspected but, unlike low enriched uranium, not ever enough to prevent incremental or abrupt diversions to make bombs. That’s why Presidents Ford and Carter suspended commercial use of plutonium-based fuels as a matter of US policy and urged other states to do the same. The UK, Germany, France, and Japan all terminated their fast reactor programs. Russia, China, and India are the only countries building them. None are yet willing to place their commercial plutonium activities under International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. India admits it will use its reactor to make bombs.
This August, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will undergo its 10th five-year review. The aim of the conference is to strengthen the barriers to further nuclear weapons proliferation. If the United States and like-minded nations are serious about supporting the NPT, Victor and I argue they need to support ending the commercial use of plutonium, which is unnecessary, uneconomic, and clearly proliferation-prone.
By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
March 15, 2021
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), whose tenth review conference is coming up in August, is in trouble, and not only because of the crescendo of complaints about the failure of the nuclear-armed states to implement nuclear disarmament. The treaty is threatened with irrelevancy because its controls have not kept up with the times. It was drafted over 50 years ago, when it was widely believed that nuclear energy represented the future and would soon take over the generation of electricity. Not surprisingly, countries put few treaty restrictions on access to technology or materials other than to impose international inspection, and even that was circumscribed. We now have a more realistic view of the dangers of access to fuels that are also nuclear explosives (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) and also of the limited economic utility of these fuels for powering reactors. If we want an effective NPT, we have to eliminate these dangerous materials from civilian nuclear power programs. Dealing with uranium enrichment is complicated because nuclear power plants use enriched uranium fuel, but that should not hold us back from eliminating the danger we can eliminate—plutonium.
As soon as one mentions reinterpreting what the NPT allows, the treaty’s “originalism” crowd immediately pronounces the notion a non-starter. But we already have essentially eliminated an entire article (Article V) of the NPT that covered a technology—“peaceful” nuclear explosives—subsequently deemed both too dangerous and with negligible economic promise. That is exactly the situation with plutonium-fueled nuclear power reactors.
Separated plutonium in national hands leaves too little safety margin against possible use in warheads. At the same time, there is no economic penalty for doing without it. It should not be permitted in commercial use in all member countries. Existing civil stocks, like Japan’s nine tons, should be put under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision until their owners can safely dispose of the material.
To read the full article, click here.