Paris, 16 June 1997
A new OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) report, Management of Separated Plutonium: The Technical Options, concludes that the management of separated plutonium presents no major technical difficulties, and is largely a matter of carefully applying existing technology in conjunction with efforts to minimise existing plutonium stocks.
Plutonium is generated by the burning of uranium fuel in nuclear reactors and is, as a result, a constituent of the spent fuel they produce. The policies of both governments and utilities concerning plutonium vary. Some pursue separation of the plutonium from spent fuel, while others do not. Although the use of plutonium as reactor fuel is increasing, stocks of separated plutonium in the civil fuel cycle are also currently growing. In addition, there are quantities of ex-military plutonium becoming available. Therefore, the technologies employed to handle, use and dispose of plutonium are of considerable interest.
There are concerns being expressed about the existence and use of the growing stocks of plutonium. There is strong public and government interest in ensuring that plutonium from any source is managed safely with minimal risk to mankind and the environment.
The new NEA report is the result of a study conducted between 1994 and 1996 by an international expert group, with membership from fifteen countries, including the Russian Federation, and three international organisations. The task of the expert group was to identify, review and evaluate the broad technical questions associated with plutonium management based on over two decades of related industrial experience.
The report indicates that in the next 15 to 20 years plutonium can be effectively recycled in thermal reactors in the form of mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel (MOX) and that such recycling could eventually reduce stocks of plutonium. However, there will continue to be surplus quantities that will need to be safely stored. The technologies are commercially available, and can be implemented safely and so as to permit effective safeguarding of the material.
Such technologies may also be employed in the longer term. In addition, plutonium may be used more efficiently in fast reactors or in other types of reactors, or it may be transformed into a form appropriate for final disposal. However, these approaches, on which research and development are under way, would need to be fully demonstrated and accepted prior to implementation.
Management of Separated Plutonium: The Technical Options
OECD, Paris 1997
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