Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: Scientists Cannot Agree On How To Cope With Plutonium

By Nigel Glass

Vienna, 9 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The nuclear industry remains trapped between the twin deadly threats of plutonium - the man-made material, which is both a toxic cancer agent - and the key to nuclear destruction.

Scientists meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna last week still could not agree on the best way of dealing with the deadly chemical, which is produced from uranium in nuclear power stations. The choices are between burying it, or re-using it - each carrying its own risks.

Towards the end of the symposium, which was described as an attempt to adjust to the new realities, IAEA spokesman David Kyd commented on the divergence of views on whether plutonium should be regarded as a dangerous waste or a valuable fuel. He pointed out that the dispute was not only between countries and companies, but also individual scientists.

To re-use plutonium, it must be separated from the spent fuel at one of the world's few reprocessing plants. During handling and transportation, to and from the power stations, the plutonium is a target for terrorists. And if the power stations were in countries secretely developing nuclear weapons, they would have a ready supply of the essential ingredient.

In one noisy exchange delegates were reminded that barely fifteen years ago many nuclear scientists asserted that it was impossible to build a nuclear weapon from the plutonium produced in power stations. Scientists now accept that this as a dangerous fallacy.

But according to Mathew Bunn, a U.S. former presidential advisor on nuclear fuel management, many nuclear operators are supporting reprocessing, not for any sound technical reasons, but because they lack sufficient storeage facilities, and simply want to get rid of the spent fuel.

At the moment, the spent fuel is accumulating in surface storage facilities. Several countries, including the U.S., support the idea of allowing it to cool off for several decades on the surface, and then encapsulating it for dumping in permanent repositories deep within the earth. But delegates were reminded that no-one had yet, either constructed a suitable repository, or carried out any significant encapsulation.

As the conference progressed, the environmental activist group Greenpeace continued to oppose the idea of the so-called geological repositories, maintaining that continued surface storage at least allowed scientists to monitor the condition of the waste. One U.S. official (anonymous) told our correspondent that the idea of geological storeage was impractical for environmental, technical and political reasons.

Nuclear expert Erwin Hackel of Germany pointed out that the entire management of nuclear fuel is being dictated by political pressures, and unstable and shortlived domestic policies in individual countries. This, he asserted, was threatening the survival of the nuclear industry.

A group of television screens at IAEA heaquarters in Vienna is due to go into operation soon. The screens will allow the United Nations agency to monitor sensitive corners of nuclear plants all over the world. These are among the high-tech inspection measures contained in the Agency's newly strengthened surveillance protocol under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Television cameras will watch over the activities of scientists at the entrances of nuclear storerooms, processing plants and laboratories, and beam the pictures - live via satellite - to the nuclear security staff at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Other measures include continuous monitoring of air and dust samples around nuclear plants, with instantaneous satellite transmission of suspicious evidence of nuclear activity, and free access of Vienna experts to follow up surveillance alerts.

The governing board of the IAEA today opens a week-long meeting at Vienna headquarters.