High-Level Policies Impact Stewardship of Excess Plutonium

by Robert G. Behrens

The ideas presented in this editorial are the author's and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California, the Department of Energy, or the U.S. Government.

On March 1, 1995, President Clinton announced the withdrawal of 200 metric tons of fissile materials from the United States' nuclear weapon stockpile, declared that this material was excess to the U.S. nuclear security and defense needs, and publicly committed that these excess materials would never again be used for nuclear weapons. This excess fissile material includes 38.2 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in addition to a total of approximately 14.3 metric tons of fuel-grade and reactor-grade plutonium. Thus, based on U.S. government nonproliferation policies, the U.S. presently has a nominal 50 metric tons of "excess plutonium," which it must manage and dispose of in the future. (Note that this 50 metric tons is approximately one-half the total plutonium inventory currently existing at Department of Energy (DOE) sites and within assembled nuclear weapons in Department of Defense-DoD-custody).

The developing nonproliferation policy of the U.S. government, along with the changing roles and responsibilities of the various DOE program offices, will have major impacts on how the DOE will manage the excess plutonium inventory in the future. In turn, these developing policies, along with guidance and recommendations for materials management from cognizant DOE program offices, will significantly impact how Los Alamos will be required to manage and control its excess weapons-grade plutonium inventory. This is important to Los Alamos because of the various programmatic activities that require either excess or defense-related plutonium. For example, the DOE Office of Defense Programs underwrites work at TA-55 (the Plutonium Facility) to develop the capability to manufacture small quantities of "war reserve" plutonium pits as part of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. At the same time, Los Alamos is developing pit-disassembly technologies (i.e., ARIES) for dismantling the excess pits in the DOE inventory. This work is performed under the auspices of the DOE Office of Fissile Materials Disposition (MD). Furthermore, Los Alamos is also working on technologies associated with the development of mixed oxide nuclear reactor fuel to make it possible to burn plutonium in nuclear reactors, should that option be chosen for disposal by DOE/MD. To make the situation even more complex, the DOE office of Environmental Management is evaluating the possibility of having Los Alamos stabilize and process various plutonium-containing residues from Rocky Flats as part of the recommendations of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) 94-1 Program. The plutonium in the residues at Rocky Flats has also been declared excess to national security needs by the DOE.

In preparation for President Clinton's nonproliferation policy statement in 1995, the DOE and DoD performed an exhaustive review of exactly what fissile materials will be required to meet future U.S. national security needs. One result of that review was the identification of excess-plutonium-containing items that make up the 38.2 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium at the various DOE facilities. This review identified specific plutonium pits in DOE custody at the Pantex Plant and at Rocky Flats, as well as excess pits in weapons that are currently in DoD custody and are awaiting return to the DOE for dismantlement. Since the President has declared that this plutonium has been permanently withdrawn from the nation's nuclear weapon stockpile and will never again be used for national security programs, it is prudent to ask the following questions: How do we ensure that the President's stated nonproliferation policy will not be compromised since TA-55 uses both excess plutonium items and defense-related plutonium items? Will additional controls and/or inventory accounting procedures be required for the plutonium removed from excess pits during ARIES prototype development to ensure confidence that the plutonium will not be used in defense-related activities? Will it be necessary for all excess plutonium at Los Alamos to be physically segregated from the plutonium used in pit fabrication and other defense-related projects? If so, how would this be implemented at TA-55 and at what cost in terms of facility space, duplication of processing facilities, and additional materials control and accountability, etc.? Will the DOE allow excess plutonium to be substituted for national security plutonium as well as vise versa? If so, how will the DOE provide assurance to the public and to special interest groups that excess plutonium is not being reused for national security purposes after the President has publicly stated that it has been perma-nently withdrawn from such use? These are important questions that must be addressed adequately by DOE and Los Alamos nuclear materials managers from the perspectives of operations, logistics, and politics.

President Clinton's nonproliferation policies also give rise to a second major issue of interest to Los Alamos-the voluntary submittal of excess plutonium by the U.S. to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection, as promised by the President. Most recently, on September 17, 1996, the U.S., Russia, and the IAEA held a trilateral meeting concerning IAEA verification of fissile material originating from weapons. Consequently, the DOE has decided to make international safeguards of U.S. excess fissile materials a routine factor in its planning and budgeting. It has recommended that 15.4 metric tons of excess plutonium being stabilized in the DNFSB 94-1 Program should be made available for IAEA inspection. It has also recommended that a long-term plan for safeguarding U.S. excess fissile material should be coordinated with the IAEA, and it is currently taking action to develop an implementation plan and to evaluate the potential availability of plutonium that can be offered for IAEA safeguards. This last action includes consultations between the DOE Office of Nonproliferation and the DNFSB 94-1 stabilization program as to how, where, and when this material should be placed under inspection.

As a result of this planning, excess plutonium residing at Los Alamos could conceivably be made available for IAEA inspection in the future. Plutonium removed from excess pits during ARIES prototype development and demonstration would be especially politically attractive in this regard. Much of the weapons-grade plutonium being stabilized at TA-55 under the DNFSB 94-1 Program is not considered excess but is required for the development and demonstration of pit fabrication. Therefore, DOE and Los Alamos managers must jointly evaluate any impacts on defense-related activities at TA-55 if any plutonium stabilized under the DNFSB 94-1 Program is considered for IAEA safeguards. We must be confident that defense-related programs are not placed in jeopardy because of the high-level nonproliferation policies coming out of DOE Headquarters. In addition, excess plutonium at Los Alamos must be adequately controlled, readily identifiable, and available for off-site shipment for long-term storage, disposition, or placement under IAEA safeguards, should the policy makers decide to implement any of these actions.

Future institutional, operational, and programmatic issues associated with managing the excess and defense-related plutonium at Los Alamos are complex, and the process to address these issues must be carefully thought out and effectively managed. It must ensure that U.S. nonproliferation policies are adhered to through adequate control and accounting of excess plutonium as defense-related activities at TA-55 proceed. It is important that Los Alamos managers are aware of the political nonproliferation policy decisions being made in Washington while also being cognizant of how these policies may impact plutonium operations at TA-55. Clearly a renewed and increased institutional attention to the management and control of nuclear material inventories will be required to meet the changing Los Alamos role and mission into the next millennium.

Robert G. Behrens of the Nuclear Materials and Stockpile Management Program Office is presently on assignment with the DOE Albuquerque Field Office, Weapons Quality Division, Nuclear Technology Branch. He can be reached at (505)845-6263.

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