IAEA meets to strengthen security as USA disposes of plutonium

07 December 2016

The USA has asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor and verify the disposition of surplus plutonium in South Carolina, US energy secretary Ernest Moniz said on 5 December. Moniz's announcement was made at an IAEA conference which aims to strengthen global nuclear security.

Amano and Moniz meet during the Vienna conference (Image: D Calma/IAEA)

In his statement to the IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security: Commitments and Actions, Moniz said work was beginning at the US Department of Energy's (DOS) Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina to dilute and dispose of 6 tonnes of surplus plutonium.

Consultations were beginning with the IAEA for the monitoring and verification of the process, Moniz said, which would be a "tangible commitment by the United States to ensure the material will not be used again in nuclear weapons."

The DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced earlier this year that the 6 tonnes of plutonium at Savannah River would be dispositioned using the 'dilute and dispose' approach. This entails blending the plutonium oxide with an adulterant, which reduces the concentration of the plutonium and makes it harder to extract a purified material, rendering it unattractive from a nuclear proliferation point of view. The diluted material is then packaged in secure canisters for permanent disposal in a geologic repository.

The 6 tonnes of plutonium to be dispositioned is in addition to previous commitments to dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus plutonium under the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) between the USA and Russia, Moniz said. A protocol to the PMDA, signed in 2010 by then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, committed both countries to dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium each by using it as fuel in civil nuclear power reactors to produce electricity.

Earlier this year, the NNSA announced it would use the dilute and dispose approach instead of converting surplus plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for use in light water reactors. In September, Russia issued a presidential decree suspending the PMDA.

Strengthening nuclear security

The IAEA conference, which runs until 9 December, has brought together 2000 participants from more than 130 of the agency's member states and 17 international, regional and non-governmental organisations to review the status of the international security regime.

A ministerial declaration, adopted at the conference's plenary session, welcomed advances made by member states in developing and enhancing their security regimes but recognised that "much more work remains to be done." The declaration underlined the importance of keeping pace with evolving challenges and threats. Ministers also encouraged the IAEA to continue efforts to promote the "universalisation" of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which entered into force earlier this year.

"Terrorists and criminals will try to exploit any vulnerability in the global nuclear security system," IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said in his opening address to the conference. "Any country could become the target of an attack. That is why effective international cooperation is vital," he said.

The conference's work and the ministerial declaration will contribute to the IAEA's nuclear security plan for 2018 to 2021, Amano said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News