The independent resource on global security

Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies

Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-828009-2
534 pp.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are the basic materials used in nuclear weapons. Plutonium also plays an important role in the generation of nuclear electricity. Knowing how much plutonium and HEU exists, where, in which form and under which controls is vital for international security and nuclear commerce. This book is a thorough revision of the World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, 1992. It provides a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the amounts of plutonium and HEU in military and civilian programmes, in nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, and in countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The capabilities that exist for producing these materials throughout the world are examined in depth. The book concludes with a thorough examination of policies on the control and disposition of fissile materials and makes a number of important new proposals. Containing much new information and analysis, this book is indispensable to all those concerned with the great contemporary issues in international nuclear relations: arms reductions in the nuclear weapon states, nuclear proliferation, nuclear smuggling, the roles of plutonium and enriched uranium in the nuclear fuel-cycle, and the disposition of surplus weapon material.

Findings and Recommendations
Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies finds that around 3000 tonnes of plutonium and HEU have been produced over the past 50 years, of which 2000 tonnes (1750 tonnes of HEU and 250 tonnes of plutonium) have been produced for military purposes. The authors estimate that less than 400 tonnes are now required to sustain nuclear arsenals in the five nuclear weapon states (NWS: the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China), so that 1600 tonnes can be counted as excess.

The management and control of plutonium and HEU is essential to reduce the potential for nuclear war or nuclear terrorism. This book examines the progress made worldwide in efforts to reduce the risk posed by these materials. To overcome the continued problems, policy initiatives are proposed in the areas of military stocks of plutonium and HEU, nuclear non-proliferation and civil plutonium separation and re-use.

Military stocks of plutonium and HEU in the nuclear weapon states

  • Plutonium and HEU in former Soviet republics remain insecure: The former USSR produced the largest stockpile of plutonium and HEU, most of which is now in Russia. Despite recent efforts, systems to protect and account for these materials in the former USSR remain far below international standards, making these stocks possible targets of theft by terrorists, proliferant states or criminal groups.

    Cold war superpowers remain reluctant to place excess plutonium and HEU under international controls: Close to 2000 tonnes of plutonium and HEU have been produced for military purposes in the NWS and the threshold states. Efforts to bring excess materials under more effective controls are facing growing political obstruction. The USA, Russia and the other acknowledged NWS are resisting calls by other governments and large segments of their own publics to declare plutonium and HEU stocks as excess to military needs and to place these materials under international control.

    Plutonium and HEU production for weapons has been halted in the NWS, but a verified agreement banning weapons material production remains elusive: Over the past several years, progress has been made to halt the production of plutonium and HEU for nuclear weapons by the five acknowledged NWS. The USA, Russia, the UK and France have officially announced a halt to the production of plutonium and HEU for weapons. Only China has not officially said it has halted production of plutonium and HEU for weapons, although unofficial reports indicate that it has stopped. Russia has also announced it will convert its last three operating plutonium production reactors so that they no longer produce weapon-grade plutonium.

Policy recommendations

  • Formal statements by all states with military programmes that their production of plutonium and HEU for weapons has ceased
  • An immediate start to the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), which would end the production of plutonium and HEU for nuclear explosives, in the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva
  • Renewed commitment by all states to develop accurate information on their stocks of plutonium and HEU, and to preserve historical production records and information
  • Increased efforts to ensure that stocks of plutonium and HEU in the former USSR are adequately accounted for and protected against theft
  • The negotiation of a new agreement or set of agreements by the USA and Russia on the control of excess stocks of plutonium and HEU in consultation with other nations and the IAEA. Once concluded, such an agreement could be joined by other states holding unsafeguarded stocks of fissile material

Stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons

  • The Middle East, South Asia and North-East Asia remain proliferation concerns: Conflicts in these regions remain a major motivation for states to seek nuclear weapons and plutonium and HEU.

    Argentina, Brazil and South Africa have backed away from nuclear weapons: Efforts to curb proliferation of nuclear weapons have achieved several successes. South Africa has revealed information about its nuclear stockpile and now joins the other non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), which have renounced nuclear weapons and accepted the comprehensive safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Argentina and Brazil have created a regional safeguards system that also opens up their formerly secret programmes to the IAEA regime.

    Israel, India and Pakistan continue to hold out against international controls: The authors' central estimates are that at the end of 1995 Israel possessed 460 kg of plutonium, India 330 kg of plutonium and Pakistan 210 kg of HEU. These stocks are outside international controls and are believed to be part of their nuclear weapon programmes. India's and Israel's stocks are projected to grow. Although Pakistan is believed to have 'frozen' the production of HEU there are indications that it may start to produce unsafeguarded plutonium. Secrecy surrounding the Khushab reactor currently under construction suggests Pakistan may have plans to separate plutonium there.

    Iraq: Iraq is the only country in the world prohibited from possessing separated plutonium and HEU. Although its pre-Gulf War facilities have been destroyed the country retains extensive expertise and ambition to reconstitute its nuclear weapon programme. The book provides a comprehensive assessment of the pre-Gulf War Iraqi nuclear weapon programme.

    North Korea's plutonium inventory remains unknown: North Korea's nuclear programme is 'frozen' under the 1994 Agreed Framework, and progress is being made on building two light water reactors in the North. The final outcome of this process will depend on North Korea allowing the IAEA to investigate thoroughly its historical plutonium production programme and determine if the country has hidden a stock of weapon-grade plutonium.

Policy recommendations

  • Rapid agreement upon and implementation of strengthened IAEA safeguards (Programme 93+2) that can better detect undeclared nuclear activities in those states that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The process of strengthening safeguards needs to continue, particularly in developing methods to improve the IAEA's ability to detect undeclared nuclear programmes
  • The international community needs to maintain strong support for the United Nations and IAEA Action Team inspections in Iraq. Iraq must be closely monitored, and sanctions preserved, until it fully complies with the terms imposed by the UN Security Council following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which include revealing fully its weapons of mass destruction programmes
  • The IAEA requires strong support in its efforts to determine North Korea's past nuclear activities within the context of the Agreed Framework
  • India, Pakistan and Israel need to be brought into the negotiation of an agreement to cut-off the production of plutonium and HEU for nuclear explosives. At a minimum, the international community needs to seek commitments from these countries that they will freeze their production of plutonium and HEU free for use in nuclear explosives

Civil plutonium

  • Civil plutonium stocks are growing rapidly: Over 1000 tonnes of plutonium have been produced in commercial power reactors. These stocks continue to grow at the rate of about 70 tonnes p.a. Over 80% of this material is contained in stored spent nuclear fuel, but a growing amount is being separated at reprocessing plants in France, the UK, Russia, Japan and India. Separated plutonium is far more accessible for nuclear weapon use.

    Glut of civil plutonium stored: At the end of 1995, about 140 tonnes of separated civil plutonium were in store in Europe and Asia. This surplus is expected to grow to about 250 tonnes over the next decade. Surpluses are growing at these unprecedented rates because plutonium separation in reprocessing plants is not being matched by plutonium disposition through recycling as fuel in civil power reactors. France, the UK and Russia hold the largest inventories of civil plutonium, but an increasing amount of this material will be owned by NNWS in Europe and by Japan.

    Reprocessing policies are held in place by industrial inertia and by political opposition to spent fuel storage and disposal strategies: Most utilities would prefer to store their spent fuel, pending its 'direct' disposal in a geological repository. The transition away from reprocessing is hindered by binding contracts with reprocessors and the uncertainty faced by utilities in pursuing long-term spent fuel storage policies.

Policy recommendations

  • There is an urgent need for a profound reassessment of civil reprocessing and plutonium management policy in Europe and Asia. Further reprocessing should be conditional on the short-term maintenance of 'zero stocks'. Where utilities possess or anticipate surplus stocks, further reprocessing of spent fuels should be deferred until a balance between supply and demand has been established.
  • Clear and politically acceptable spent fuel management policies need to be put into place in all states. These policies should take into account the disposition of plutonium from surplus civil and military stocks.