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Fate of nuclear stockpile
The decision of the US administration to explore alternative methods for plutonium disposal may not be a better option

The cold war between the United States and Russia formally came to an end in 1991 but relations between the two nations have often been fraught. On many issues their positions have been mostly divergent if not downright antithetical. But on rare occasions, there has also been a meeting of minds, though not without much toing and froing. One such point of agreement has been the two countries commitment to each dispose of 34 tons of excess weapon-grade plutonium by turning it into mixed oxide (MOx) fuel and using it in nuclear power reactors.

As a legacy of the Cold War years, the two countries still possess massive stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, needed for building nuclear weapons. While the two countries have been engaged in talks for several years now in a bid to arrive at a mutually amicable solution to get rid of their dangerous stockpiles, the matter remains largely unresolved even as the estimated costs for carrying out such an exercise have increased dramatically.

It was in 1983 that the two superpowers realized the danger of plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists and separatists. Even nine pounds of smuggled plutonium is capable of producing a bomb as powerful as the one dropped in Hiroshima! Taking into account such concerns the US and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) agreed to build what came to be known as the mixed oxide or MOx plant, one in the US and the other in Soviet Russia 17 years ago to shield themselves from any damage by terror outfits. The plants would blend the plutonium with uranium and transform it into a new fuel called mixed oxide.

However, huge cost overruns, Russian insistence on foreign sponsorships and self-defeating deals to reduce plutonium have ensured that the plants lie languishing in South Carolina and south of Moscow without any immediate prospects of completion and meeting their goals. For instance, the MOx plant in the US was projected in 1999 to cost $1.7 billion. The estimate rose to $4.9 billion – and has recently been revised to $7.7 billion with news that its completion would be three years later than planned. The US Congress is now reviewing President Barack Obama administration’s new assertion that the program “may be unaffordable,” which could leave its future very much in question. Although about $4 billion has been spent on the project, which is about 60 percent complete, administration officials now say other options must be considered.
The hands of officials have been forced due to the president’s budget proposal for 2014, which aims to cut about $400 million from the nonproliferation programs run by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which also builds and maintains the US nuclear weapons stockpile. The budgetary cut comes as a bit of a surprise because the president has time and again reiterated his resolve to push forward America’s non-proliferation drive. At the 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit, Obama had sought to bolster international efforts to protect nuclear material and to prevent terrorists from obtaining a nuclear weapon. On another occasion, he warned of the dangers that nuclear weapons presented: “Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history — the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up.”

The budget slash has now forced administration officials to explore alternative methods to dispose of the plutonium. The other means considered for disposal, sealing the plutonium in glass with highly radioactive waste, might be accomplished for a similar cost but would entail much greater technological and budgetary risk because it has never been done before on such a large scale. Anyways, simply storing the material would be more expensive than what it would cost to complete the MOX plant and it would do nothing to eliminate the plutonium, which would seriously dent the credibility of the US non-proliferation initiative.

While nobody is arguing that America is currently going through a budget crisis, it should not nudge the government into making wrong or less prudent choices. Choosing the right priorities on an issue of as grave national significance as securing or disposing of dangerous nuclear material such as plutonium calls for exhaustive deliberations instead of a knee-jerk reaction. Hopefully, the president and Congress will come together and provide the funds necessary for the completion of the half-built MOX plant.

By:- Sayan Ghosh

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