How The U.S. Failed In Excess Weapons Plutonium Disposition … A Nuclear Sputnik Moment?

Los Alamos

Putin’s withdrawal from the U.S./Russia agreement for each nation to destroy 34 tons of excess weapons plutonium, (W-Pu) enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons, is more the consequence of U.S. technical failure than the deterioration of an international relationship. Both nations agreed that the plutonium be either destroyed by fission or converted to a plutonium isotopic form that was not useful for weapons. Russia chose to build a fast-spectrum nuclear reactor in hopes of launching a new breeder technology. The U. S. chose to combine the plutonium with uranium for burning in one or more of the 100 U. S. light water reactors. Russia proceeded about as fast as their budgets could allow and finally, after 16 years, their W-Pu burning reactor is up and running through initial tests, although with substitute fuel instead of W-Pu. But no U.S. progress can be reported.

Delay by urgency

Before the agreement, the U.S. W-Pu disposition effort suffered through the “out-of-sight and out-of-mind” urgency of burying W-Pu in Yucca Mountain, thought to be a solution to any and all of our nation’s nuclear waste problems. After controversy over the prospect that W-Pu could by natural means evolve to spontaneous nuclear explosions, that approach was abandoned. Because anything that can be buried can be dug up, this was never a permanent solution anyway. 

At the same time, a Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) proposal named Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW) was underway (from 1992 to 1996) to burn W-Pu in advanced accelerator driven reactors. This process did not require a critical mass and had many other major safety features that, if employed, could prevent the Three-Mile Island and Fukushima accidents. The ATW opposition, invoking urgency, claimed that alternatives to ATW could be launched much faster with disposal of substantial W-Pu well before the year 2000. Proposals concurrent to ATW included seabed disposal and deep borehole disposal, both of which failed because buried materials could be recovered by similar technology. Twenty years after the rejection of LANL’s ATW in 1996, the U.S. still remains many years away from burning a single gram of the 34 tons of W-Pu by any means.

Urgency might have been served well by an alternative whereby our 34 tons would be sent to France, which had existing capability to convert the material into a form that could be burned in U.S. reactors. The U. S. Congress, however, was not enamored with placing 34 tons of W-Pu in any foreign nation’s hands.

Alternatively, it should not take long to build a simple U. S. plant to do the same things as the French plant. Accordingly, the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) plant was begun at the DOE Savannah River Site in South Carolina.  After roughly three years of designing a $2-3 billion facility and undertaking a seemingly endless construction project, about $5 billion has been spent on the MOX plant. Completed costs are currently estimated at $10-17 billion, with operation projected to begin around 2022. With costs of $1 billion per year to process 1 ton per year, the price for destruction of the 34 tons of W-Pu has grown to perhaps $50 billion.

Owing to the escalating costs and delays, the Obama administration has made efforts to terminate the MOX project in favor of burying the W-Pu instead, seemingly in hope that Russia would not notice or care. The DOE, therefore, resuscitated deep borehole disposal at a test drilling site in North Dakota. Well informed North Dakota farmers in the neighborhood did not believe that this was just a test and managed, by legal action in the early fall of 2016, to force the W-Pu burial effort out of North Dakota. 

Anticipating the North Dakota failure, the DOE had turned to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., which was sold to New Mexico citizens as a site for permanent low level defense waste storage.  W-Pu is high level waste by any definition and about as far as one can get from WIPP’s intended purpose. Putin warned Obama months ago that Russia can dig up anything that can be buried, that he believes that the same is true of the U. S., and that burial anywhere including WIPP was outside the terms of the year 2000 agreement. Obama is sticking by his plan to abrogate the 2000 agreement by burial because the U.S. DOE has been unable to develop any viable W-Pu destruction options in the past 16 years, so now Putin has pulled out as well. 

The private sector emerges

Putin is being blamed for the collapse to provide cover for U.S. mismanagement and the decline of the U.S. DOE’s nuclear technology. Fortunately the LANL ATW technology of 1996 was not lost. ATW was continued in the private sector in 1997 by ADNA Corporation (Accelerator Driven Neutron Applications) incorporated in Los Alamos, N.M. ADNA has made major progress in further developing LANL’s technology by new patents of its GEM*STAR technology that could be demonstrated readily using LANL’s LANSCE accelerator. In the meantime the DOE has neglected subcritical nuclear technology for so long and remains so firmly locked into critical mass technology that it is unlikely to regain competitiveness with the U.S. private sector. 

Private investment is now enabling GEM*STAR to advance at a rate that exceeds the ATW LANL program of the 1990s. With this support GEM*STAR is emerging as the only economically viable technology in the world for destroying excess W-Pu. It can also burn other nuclear fuel including natural uranium without enrichment, and commercial nuclear waste without reprocessing. The nuclear heat released by GEM*STAR can be used to either produce carbon-free electricity or 100 percent renewable liquid fuel (diesel and gasoline) from byproduct cellulosic material.

Is Putin’s action another Sputnik moment for the U.S.? Will the day come when Putin grudgingly receives credit for alerting the U.S. to the somnolent state of DOE nuclear energy and waste management technology and to a widespread U.S. nuclear revival? LANL’s LANSCE accelerator is essential for launching GEM*STAR and finally fulfilling the U.S. side of the W-Pu bargain.

Dr. Bowman is president of ADNA Corporation, a Fellow of the America Physical Society, Silver Medal winner from the Department of Commerce, a retired Fellow of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the originator of the LANL ATW Project. Concurrent with the LANL ATW effort, Dr. Bowman also led the U.S-Russian International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) Project 17 funded by the U.S. State Department that employed 450 Russian weapons scientists at six weapon laboratories in ATW development as a means for helping keep Russian weapons technology from leaking to the Middle East. Email: