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Speech - Dr. John H. Gibbons

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MAY 4, 1994


It's a pleasure to be here today to talk about a problem that concerns us all -- dealing with the vast stockpiles of plutonium produced during the Cold War. Nothing could be more central to our security than making sure this material does not fall into the wrong hands.

This is one of the most challenging policy problems I've come across, weaving together issues of technology, security, environment, energy, and international politics. To integrate these varied aspects of the problem, we'll need careful management, high-level oversight, and well-informed public input. That's why we're all here today. We can't solve this problem without you.

Today, I want to describe to you the comprehensive, four-part strategy this administration has developed to deal with this problem. But first, let me outline the scale of the plutonium problem we have.

A Security Liability

Separated plutonium poses major security risks. We have a continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula because North Korea might have separated a few kilograms of plutonium -- enough for a nuclear bomb. Yet at the same time, Russia and the United States must deal with tens of tons of excess plutonium, the result of the ongoing dismantlement of thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons. As a recent National Academy of Sciences report warned, this excess material poses a "clear and present danger" to international security.

The plutonium problem doesn't stop there. We have to worry about excess plutonium chemically separated from civilian spent fuel as well. There are already almost 100 tons of this civilian separated plutonium -- which also poses proliferation risks -- around the world today, and more is building up all the time. This plutonium was originally intended to be fuel for breeder reactors that now will not be built for decades -- if ever.

Finally, there are hundreds of tons of plutonium in spent fuel from civilian nuclear power plants all over the world. But today that plutonium poses much less security risk than separated plutonium, because the spent fuel's intense radioactivity makes it difficult to extract the plutonium for use in bombs. Plutonium that has been separated -- including both weapons plutonium and civilian plutonium -- is far easier to handle and make bombs from.

The Academy study -- about which you'll hear more in a moment -- recommended that we move out with all deliberate speed to make it as difficult to make bombs out of the excess separated plutonium as it is to make bombs out of the plutonium in spent fuel. Then the excess plutonium we're now trying to cope with could become, in effect, one small part of the larger global problem of disposal of spent fuel and other nuclear wastes. That's another big problem, but one we know we must solve in any case.

An Economic Liability

Contrary to some claims, there is no money in plutonium -- except, perhaps, on the nuclear black market. Making reactor fuel from plutonium is so expensive that the fuel cannot compete on the commercial market, even if the plutonium itself is "free." Like oil shale, plutonium has energy locked inside, but the cost of getting that energy out is more than the energy is worth in today's market.

Therefore, anything we do with our excess weapons plutonium will cost money. But, given the stakes, we must view that expense as an investment in security, just as we once viewed the cost of its production.

An Environmental Liability

Finally, plutonium is not only an economic, but also an environmental liability, thousands of times more toxic than uranium. This administration will make protection for health, safety, and the environment a fundamental requirement of our plutonium storage and disposition activities. I am convinced that with your help, we can develop approaches that will allow us to achieve our critical security goals and meet stringent environmental and safety standards at the same time.

An Urgent Problem

Given the security stakes, we cannot afford unnecessary delay. Simply storing this material in forms that could readily be put back into nuclear weapons would not create the irreversible arms reductions we have committed to seek. And it would mean leaving the material in a form that would be easy to carry off if there were ever a breakdown in security.

Unfortunately, while disposition of plutonium is an urgent task, the reality is that it will take decades to accomplish. I'm reminded of the French marshal who, after learning that it would take 30 years for trees to grow along the boulevard leading to his estate, told his gardener that he'd better start planting tonight, rather than waiting until tomorrow.

This problem is difficult enough in the United States; Russia must face this daunting challenge in the midst of continuing political, economic, and social turmoil. Yet what we do with our plutonium in the United States will inevitably have a major impact on what Russia does. And what we do with the basic building blocks of our Cold War nuclear arsenal will inevitably affect how other countries manage their plutonium, and how they view our seriousness about arms reductions and nonproliferation.

A Comprehensive Approach

Well, there's the challenge before us. Now what are we going to do about it?

Let me lay out for you the comprehensive approach to the plutonium problem this administration has developed over the past few months. Our approach has four elements: securing nuclear materials, building confidence through openness, halting further accumulation, and carrying out ultimate disposition.

First, and most urgently, we are working to remove opportunities for bomb materials to end up on a nuclear black market. If we don't nail some barn doors shut before the horses get out, nothing else we do in this area will be worth much. So we are buying 500 tons of HEU from Russia, blending it down to low-enriched reactor fuel that can be sold to commercial producers of nuclear power, without proliferation risk; we are helping Russia with a safe, secure storage site for other fissile materials; and we have proposed a new initiative to help Russia find and fix the most urgent security and accounting problems throughout its far-flung nuclear complex.

Second, we are building confidence through openness. You have to know how big a problem is before you can solve it, so we have proposed that the United States and Russia share comprehensive information on their stocks of plutonium and HEU. We have made a first step by unilaterally declaring how much weapons plutonium we have produced. In March, we agreed with Russia that the two sides would begin monitoring the storage sites for components from dismantled nuclear weapons. We are also taking steps to submit these excess materials to fully international inspections; the initial bilateral monitoring will provide valuable experience toward that end. We seek to build a structure of openness that builds confidence that nuclear weapons are being dismantled, plutonium and HEU are secure, and excess materials are not being used for new nuclear weapons.

Third, there's what I like to call the "universal theory of holes." That is, if you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. If we have too much separated plutonium, we should stop making more. Our country has stopped already. Now we are working with Russia to help them to stop. In March, we reached an agreement with Russia under which they will shut down their military plutonium production reactors. We will help them find financing to replace the energy these reactors now provide. We also agreed that the material produced in the meantime will not be used for new weapons. The bilateral accord we are now working to finalize will be the first step toward a global treaty designed to end mankind's production of these fissile materials for weapons forever.

At the same time, we will work with Russia and other countries to prevent the dangerous accumulation of unneeded plutonium in civilian nuclear programs. This plutonium too can be used in nuclear bombs. The United States does not use separated plutonium in its civilian nuclear reactors, and does not encourage others to do so. Others, including Russia and some of our allies, have taken a different view -- with the result, as I mentioned, that almost 100 tons of separated plutonium for civilian purposes is now sitting in storage in various countries, with more building up all the time. We will work cooperatively with other countries in our efforts to unravel this knotty problem.

Plutonium Disposition

Fourth and finally, we are examining what to do with the existing separated plutonium to reduce its security risks in the long term. We need to build the security and transparency I have just described, and transform the excess weapons plutonium into a form in which it is better protected from diversion by its own physical and chemical characteristics, or eliminated altogether.

Fortunately, we have an excellent National Academy of Sciences report, about which you will hear more in a moment, to guide our thinking. The Academy panel recommended that the "spent fuel standard" -- making this material as difficult to use for weapons as the much larger and growing stocks of plutonium in civilian spent fuel -- be the goal of our disposition efforts. Of all of the plutonium-disposition options the Academy panel examined, they concluded that two could achieve this "spent fuel standard" more quickly, more surely, and more cheaply than any of the others.

One approach is to use the excess weapons plutonium as fuel in existing nuclear reactors -- mixed with uranium, in a so-called mixed oxide, or MOX fuel. The other is to blend the plutonium with high-level radioactive wastes, which will then be mixed with molten glass and shaped into huge glass logs. As I mentioned earlier, the MOX approach would require a substantial government subsidy, and the glass approach would cost money as well. In each case, intensely radioactive products containing plutonium would have to be stored and ultimately disposed of, like the spent fuel and high-level wastes we already have to handle. There would still be some possibility that the plutonium could be recovered, but it wouldn't be much easier to do that than to get plutonium out of the much larger and growing amounts of ordinary spent fuel already in storage. We are examining a variety of other disposition options as well.

Balancing the complex security, environmental, and technological issues involved, and building a sustainable consensus behind a single option, will not be easy. Virtually all of the options would require substantial plutonium processing, handling, and transport, and would result in some form of plutonium-bearing radioactive wastes that would have to be put somewhere. I have no doubt there will be some lively discussions concerning where such facilities will be located, and what process will be used for gaining approval for them. But as I said before, we cannot afford to delay. We are looking forward to working with you: well-informed public participation throughout the process will be fundamental to getting the job done.

The Way Forward

This is an ambitious agenda: securing fissile material, building confidence through openness, limiting further production, and ultimately transforming it into forms that pose less security risk. The new common themes are comprehensiveness -- focusing on all the materials rather than merely selected parts -- and reciprocity. We are now willing to open up our nuclear sites in the same way we are suggesting to Russia.

Our vision is of the United States and Russia running our nuclear weapons complexes in reverse -- dismantling thousands of nuclear weapons rather than building more, getting rid of nuclear weapons materials rather than producing ever larger stockpiles, cleaning up rather than further fouling our nuclear sites, fostering openness and trust rather than maintaining strictest secrecy. This administration is committed to making that vision a reality.

As a first step, this year the Secretary of Energy created a department-wide task force to manage storage and disposition of excess fissile materials. That task force is advancing on multiple fronts; they will be the host for those of you who stay on for tomorrow's meeting.

But because these are fundamental issues stretching beyond the expertise of any one department, we have established a broad interagency process to ensure that all the voices that must be heard, are heard. Working with the National Security Council, my office chairs the working group on plutonium disposition. That is the group that is your host today. A new joint U.S.-Russian working group will provide an interagency focus for coordinating our transparency initiatives. We expect to be meeting soon with Russian experts to push these initiatives forward, following up on commitments made at the January Clinton-Yeltsin summit.

Two years ago, frustrated by the inaction of the last administration, the late Richard Nixon warned that while we had "won" the Cold War, we were not yet committed to winning the peace. This Administration is working aggressively to accomplish that complex task. But we can't do all this without you. If we are to make difficult decisions soon, and sustain the broad support we need to carry them out over the long haul, your ideas and oversight will be critical. Working together, we can get this job done. The future of efforts to reduce nuclear arms and stem their spread depends on our success.

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