An agreement between Russia and the USA to work together to dispose of weapons grade plutonium has been suspended. The deal dates back to 2000 when both nations agreed to reduce their nuclear weapons by disposing of 34 tonnes of plutonium each, enough to build approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.
The strategy behind the agreement was a good one. Through a ‘sword-to-plough’ approach, the weapons grade material would be reprocessed and turned into clean energy to power homes and industry. The bilateral plan reduced the amount of weapons-grade plutonium and in turn burned it, thus producing vast amounts of carbon dioxide-free energy, whilst also strengthening the relations between the two countries with a very tense geopolitical history.
Unfortunately it is a breakdown in these relations that appears to have ended the deal. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing war in Syria have tested the relationship to breaking point. The failure of the recent Syrian ceasefire seems to have been the breaking point, with the US announcing that they will suspend discussion with Russia over Syria. Russia however claims that these are distractions and that the real issue is the USA’s reprocessing is insufficient and bombs could still be made from their plutonium.
This claim stems from the fact that Russia dilutes their plutonium and makes it into Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel which, in turn, would be used to generate electricity in reactors. This approach would see the plutonium permanently destroyed, whilst the Americans decided to scrap their MOX plant after Fukushima and opted to bury the plutonium instead. This, the Russians argue, contravenes the deal as the plutonium would still be retrievable.
Without this deal, the plutonium issue remains a significant one. There are large volumes of the material left over from nuclear weapons production. Plutonium is also produced by nuclear power stations. The UK is far from immune to this problem, burdened with the biggest plutonium stockpile in the world.
But with every crisis, there is an opportunity. Advanced reactors have the potential to burn up plutonium much more efficiently and easily. The US, Russia and the UK are all investing in new, Generation 4 designs that can deal with the problem. Plutonium is a domestic security issue and combatting it with advanced nuclear power not only reduces this insecurity but also simultaneously increases energy security.
International disagreements, however serious, should not be allowed to stand in the way of national or international actions on turning plutonium from a vice to a virtue. Weinberg Next Nuclear’s will soon be addressing this issue in a new report, discussing how the UK should deal with its legacy waste, including the plutonium stockpile.