THE PLUTONIUM QUESTION
DECEMBER 9, 1996
Both the United States and Russia are beginning to disarm their Cold War stockpiles of nuclear missiles, but the plutonium that formed the heart of these missiles still remains. In a Newsmaker interview, Energy Sec. Hazel O'Leary explains the controversial two-pronged plan the U.S. government has for disposing this Cold War legacy.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Online NewsHour links
November 22, 1995:
In an Online NewsHour Forum, a Department of Energy official and one of that agenies critics answers viewer questions on nuclear waste.
June 10, 1995:
NewsHour correspondent Rod Minott examines the disposal of Cold War-era plutonium.
The Department of Energy home page.
The EPA's Yucca Flats home page.
JIM LEHRER: The plan for disposing of plutonium is first tonight. It has been one of the toughest scientific and political questions of the post Cold War era, what to do with the dangerous and powerful plutonium produced to build nuclear weapons. Today the Energy Department announced a new plan, and Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary is here for a Newsmaker interview to explain it. Welcome, Madame Secretary.
HAZEL O’LEARY, Secretary of Energy: Thank you very much.
JIM LEHRER: First, an overview of the situation. How much plutonium is actually involved?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: About 52 metric tons. More than half of the plutonium produced in the United States over the past 50 years.
JIM LEHRER: And where is it as we speak?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Well, it’s in various sites around the United States, but principally in dispersed form. It’s in Idaho and lots of what we call "plutonium pits", which are the basket ball size guts of the nose cone of the nuclear weapon, are in Pantex and Texas.
JIM LEHRER: And these all came from nuclear weapons that have been disarmed, is that correct?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: That is correct. And so we’ve been about the business of disarming nuclear weapons for some years now. Four years ago, when I became Secretary of Energy, the Department was still grappling with the question of what should be done with its excess nuclear material.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what form is it in? For those of us who are not experts on plutonium, I mean, is it in containers that are now safe, or something is not done fairly quickly, there becomes a danger? Explain that to us.
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: No, I don’t want the public generally concerned about its imminent danger. The real issue here is ensuring that this material is protected from terrorists, and it’s also protected from someone who would want to steal it, which is not the biggest problem in the United States. What we’re about in the United States is providing the international leadership, as we did on the comprehensive test ban treaty ending nuclear testing by saying we are prepared to get rid of our nuclear material, and we’re prepared to do it in a way that makes it irreversible for use in bombs again. And that’s the point we’re making here.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now there are two ways under your plan to do it. It’s called the "two-track way". First is to case it in glass. Now what’s involved there?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: What’s involved there is taking the plutonium out of its pits or out of its dispersed form and making it ready to be placed in some sort of cannister which can then be vitrified, as we call it, either put in huge ceramic logs or in glass logs. And we will determine in the next 18 months which one of those technologies is best.
JIM LEHRER: And what happens to the glass logs?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: The glass logs is in place in about a 15-foot high steel cannister, and they can be stored very safely in site until we have the ultimate repository, that is, nuclear waste dump, as some people like to call it, to receive this material.
JIM LEHRER: Now hopefully, it will eventually be buried somewhere.
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Absolutely. And buried in this repository, which many people believe might be in Nevada.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, once in this glass or ceramic case, is it completely safe? I mean, can it ever be used again for nuclear weapons?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Well, our position in the United States is that this is one way to make it safe from use. Our colleagues in Russia have another view, and we will come to discussing why we’re on two tracks because we want to bring our views closer together. The Russians really want to see us destroy our plutonium isotopically, that is, to reduce its power to create a weapon. And they believe that can only be done through disposing of it through the use of a nuclear reactor, that is burn it up.
JIM LEHRER: Burn it up.
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Burn it up.
JIM LEHRER: But you have taken the position--the Energy Department has taken the position at this point that you also want to do this encasing thing, right? Now, how much of this 50 some metric tons are you going to do encasing?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Well, we’re not certain yet, and the reason we’re not certain yet is because we need to finish playing out the experiments doing what we call bench models of both of these technologies to determine which one works best, to determine which one is the most cost effective, to determine also which one citizens living near by sites where the work will be done prefer.
So we’ve got a lot of work to do, and what I’ve learned in these four years as Secretary of Energy is that you’re very foolish to bet on one technology, because, more often than not, you’re left to win an empty hand. So in this instance, we’re going on a two-track system--this is the second time we’ve done that--with the idea that we’ll have the right answer in terms of technology, we’ll have the right answer in terms of cost, and we will have the right answer in terms of what citizens find acceptable because that’s very important to licensing.
JIM LEHRER: Now, speaking of that, that’s the second track and the one where there has been the most controversy, at least here in the United States, and the most concerned voice today, which is today, which is to use the plutonium and burn it in civilian nuclear reactors. Now, why are you going to--because of Russia, is that the reason you’ve decided to use that option?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: No, that is not the reason we’ve decided to use this option. Later I will explain that this puts us in closer partnership with the Russians. I think I’ve told you why. Why is because we’re not certain which is the best option yet. Now, in the reactor, which would likely be a civilian reactor of moment, but the idea is that if this technology--
JIM LEHRER: How, a reactor that is generating electrical power?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Exactly. But the first point to be made is that this reactor would go out of the control of civilians and become a U.S. reactor. So that meets the concern of civilian control. The next thing is that we don’t plan to produce plutonium in this reactor; we plan to destroy it. And that’s been the thing that the Carter administration and our administration has been opposed to, use a reactor to produce, or to breed, plutonium. In this instance, we would be using a reactor to get rid of it, and that’s a dramatic distinction.
JIM LEHRER: But what do you say to those who said today what you’re proposing is the commercialization of plutonium because you’re turning it into civilian use and nuclear reactors, the one thing that the Carter administration did not want done?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: The first thing I’ve told you it will no longer be a civilian reactor. And our model, the reactor is owned by the federal government. The second piece of it is that the Carter administration and the Congress through legislations that do not produce plutonium. What we proposed to do in this technology is to destroy it. It’s the price of what we’re after to destroy it beyond use ever again.
JIM LEHRER: But the Russians plan a different approach, do they not? In other words, they’re still going to produce plutonium?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Well, we’re not certain. I mean, of the moment, and this is the marvelous thing about trying these two tracks because we’re now engaged with the Russians and working on this technology together. And before President Clinton and Yeltsin a year and a half ago made the decision that we would work on these technologies together, the Russians were not at all interested in the vitrification or glassifying this plutonium. Now they are. So we’re working partnership to understand what works best.
I believe that this is the best course to take because it engages both countries, without having pushed away one technology or the other. And our issue is to make certain that in a Russian Federation, they get rid of their plutonium. And so we’re engaged not so that the Russians can create the plutonium society but so that the Russians will follow the course we’re following, which is to get rid of this stuff forever. It is the ugly stuff of nuclear war. And we’re at peace now. Our job is to get rid of plutonium.
JIM LEHRER: Let’s assume that your plan goes forward. How long would it take to get rid of these fifty some metric tons of plutonium?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: If we’re very, very careful with our process, and we have been so far, we’ll actually be engaged in bench scale demonstrations in two years.
JIM LEHRER: Bench scale demonstrations.
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: It’s tiny. It’s a model about a third or maybe a tenth of a size of what would be ultimately produced. This allows us to get the bugs out. We won’t make any mistakes before we make the grand investment. We’ll actually be churning up, burning up, or vitrifying waste within the next two years, a very modest amount. By year seven or eight we’ll be getting rid of a ton and a half--
JIM LEHRER: 2007 or '8, right?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Well, actually 2006, 2005, we’ll be getting rid of a ton and a half of the material. And by the tenth year, we’ll be getting rid of five tons per year. And that’s a pretty healthy rate. So two decades, two and a half decades it’ll take us to get this done.
JIM LEHRER: And this, of course, operates under the assumption that there won’t be any more plutonium being manufactured, right? In other words, this is a one-shot destruction, and there’s no more coming in the year end?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Once through, that’s all. We haven’t made plutonium in years. There’s no intention to. The President of the United States three years ago said no more nuclear testing. We are downsizing our weapons stockpile and moving on this course because we no longer have the need for excess material. It’s a great story.
JIM LEHRER: You mentioned cost a moment ago. Do you have any idea what this is going to cost?
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Yes, we do. Approximately $2 billion. The vitrification of putting in glass technology is about one point six, one point seven billion dollars. The use of the reactor to burn up the plutonium is about $1.9 billion. A combination. Should we determine that need to use both technologies because of the characteristics of the plutonium, it would be about $2.3 billion. And when you consider that it costs the American taxpayer $4 trillion to make these weapons, it seems to me like a very cost-effective course to take.
JIM LEHRER: Madame Secretary, thank you very much.
SEC. HAZEL O’LEARY: Thank you.