Increasing worldwide stockpiles of surplus plutonium are becoming a political embarrassment, a worrying security risk, and a hidden extra cost to the nuclear industry.
LONDON, 22 January, 2016 − Two armed ships set off from the northwest of England this week to sail round the world to Japan on a secretive and controversial mission to collect a consignment of plutonium and transport it to the US.
The cargo of plutonium, once the most sought-after and valuable substance in the world, is one of a number of ever-growing stockpiles that are becoming an increasing financial and security embarrassment to the countries that own them.
So far, there is no commercially viable use for this toxic metal, and there is increasing fear that plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists, or that governments could be tempted to use it to join the nuclear arms race.
Out of harm’s way
Japan, with its 47-ton stockpile, is among the countries that once hoped to turn their plutonium into a power source, but various attempts have failed. The government, which has a firm policy of using it only for peaceful purposes, has nonetheless come under pressure to keep it out of harm’s way. Hence, the current plan to ship it to the US.
Altogether, 15 countries across the world have stockpiles. They include North Korea, which hopes to turn it into nuclear weapons.
The UK has the largest pile, with 140 tons held at Sellafield in north-west England, where plutonium has been produced at the site’s nuclear power plant since the 1950s. The government has yet to come up with a policy on what to do with it – and, meanwhile, the costs of keeping it under armed guard continue to rise.
Like most countries, the UK cannot decide whether it has an asset or a liability. The plutonium does not appear on any balance sheet, and the huge costs of storing it safely − to avoid it going critical and causing a meltdown − and guarding it against terrorists are not shown as a cost of nuclear power.
The shipment of plutonium from Japan to the US falls under the US-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), or Material Management & Minimisation (M3) programme, whereby weapons-useable material such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is removed from facilities worldwide for safekeeping in the US.
The cargo to be loaded onto the two UK ships in Japan consists of some 331kg of plutonium from Japan’s Tokai Research Establishment.
This plutonium – a substantial fraction of which was supplied to Japan by the UK decades ago for “experimental purposes” in Tokai’s Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) facility − is described by the US Department of Energy (DOE) as “posing a potential threat to national security, being susceptible to use in an improvised nuclear device, and presenting a high risk of theft or diversion”. Or, as another US expert put it, “sufficient to make up to 40 nuclear bombs”.
Under the US-led programme, the plutonium will be transported from Japan to the US port of Charleston and onwards to the Savannah River site in South Carolina.
Read more at Plutonium’s global problems are piling up