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Plutonium Disposal Concerns Yet Unanswered

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Piles of bomb material from dismantling US nuclear arsenals and still no plans for disposal brings new focus for world concerns.

DALLAS (May 5, 2014) – In the year 2000 the United States agreed with Russia to each dispose of 34 tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons, looking at burning it in reactors for fuel as a way to both eliminate it and make disarmament irreversible. But in March of this year the US Department of Energy abruptly stopped work on a plant for that purpose being built near Aiken, South Carolina, citing massive cost overruns.

This is among the larger unresolved issues coming out of what many scientists call an otherwise very successful world nuclear summit held in The Hague last March 24 – 25. “We really have a challenge globally to deal with this,” says Corey Hinderstein, VP International Program with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, “we need to start working together and this conversation so far has been disjointed.” Many believe finding another way for the US to dispose of the plutonium may well mean renegotiating the original agreement reached with Russia. That may prove difficult now with Russia a world pariah over it adventures in Ukraine.

“When we think of nuclear threats there are really three main categories,” says Hinderstein, “nonproliferation, disarmament and nuclear terrorism. And while there are linkages and overlaps among them, the methods one might think about reducing those threats are a little bit different.”

Hinderstein spoke by phone from her office in Washington, D.C., on the ScienceNews Radio Network program Promise of Tomorrow with Colonel Mason. The broadcast originates in Dallas, Texas, and then can be heard webcast for its world audience at

There are nine countries in the world that we know of possessing nuclear weapons. NTI not only seeks to prevent the spread to other countries, but would like to disarm the nine. A big concern, of course, is terrorism. “We talk about nuclear terrorism, non-state actors (with) nuclear weapon, or more likely the nuclear material itself falling into the hands of a terrorist or criminal, or being on the black market somewhere to be acquired by somebody who intends to use it.” In the commercial nuclear industry Hinderstein believes vigilance must be enterprise-wide, from the boardroom on down. “We have to have the best possible practices with regard to safety and security.”