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A Rough Road from Swords to Ploughshares via the New York Times

For nearly 20 years, the Energy Department has been seeking to destroy plutonium recovered from surplus nuclear bombs by converting it to fuel for civilian reactors. Most of it would be destroyed by fission, and the remainder would be embedded in highly radioactive fission products.

Anti-proliferation groups are eager to see the plutonium destroyed as part of a Russian-American agreement because as long as it exists, it can be refashioned into nuclear bombs. But some of those groups oppose accomplishing that through use as fuel in civilian reactors because that would involve a form of commerce in which it could go astray, they say.

[...]

At present, if a shipment contains five kilograms (11 pounds) or more of highly enriched uranium, another bomb fuel, the rules do not differentiate between whether it is in a pure form or dispersed in a rail car filled with contaminated soil. So the staff has been issuing exemptions to certain rules. That makes the regulatory system less transparent and also more difficult to administer.

But Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that in contrast to making plutonium, which usually requires a reactor and then complicated chemical processing plants that can handle such highly radioactive material, purifying the plutonium from the form used in fuel requires only “relatively simple chemistry” — namely mixed oxide, or MOx. An adversary could blow up a fuel assembly and cart off the pieces, he said.

“The managers of the U.S. MOx program, which was initiated as part of a bilateral effort with Russia to reduce the threat of unsecured plutonium in both countries, are once again undermining nuclear security by lobbying for a weakening of security measures because of their cost and inconvenience,’’ Dr. Lyman wrote in a paper presented last year at a meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management.

It makes little sense to relax rules involving a potential bomb fuel at a time when concern about terrorism remains high, he said.

Read more at A Rough Road from Swords to Ploughshares

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