Policy Issues

Disposition of Surplus Weapons-Grade Plutonium

The Nonproliferation Treaty calls for countries with nuclear weapons to work towards disarmament. The United States and Russia have been working jointly to meet disarmament goals through several agreements, one of which is the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, or PMDA. Each country will dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by using it as fuel in commercial power reactors to produce electricity. Combined, this disposed plutonium represents enough material for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.

The majority of commercial nuclear power reactors have evolved to a standard fuel type consisting of natural or low-enriched ceramic uranium oxide fuel pellets encased in tubes of zirconium alloy. In order to use plutonium as fuel in commercial reactors, small amounts of plutonium oxide are blended with large amounts of natural or depleted uranium oxide. This blended fuel is known as mixed oxide or MOX fuel.

Fabricating surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel renders the material unattractive for weapons use while also rendering it ready for use as fuel in nuclear power reactors. Once the fuel is used to generate electricity in a reactor, it becomes radioactive and the plutonium is unable to be readily used in a nuclear weapon.

Although the United States does not currently use MOX fuel, other countries have been using reprocessing and MOX fuel technologies on an industrial scale. Today, MOX fuel has been used in more than 30 nuclear power reactors in France, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, with other countries making plans to implement its use.

The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is being built for the purpose of converting excess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial fuel for nuclear power plants. The MOX facility will combine the plutonium with uranium to manufacture fuel to be sent to commercial nuclear power plants in the United States. The fuel will generate electricity while also disposing of the weapons-grade plutonium.

For more information, see the ANS Position Statement and Background Information on the Utilization of Surplus Weapons Plutonium As Mixed Oxide Fuel.


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