“I use ‘disruptive’ in both its good and bad connotations. Disruptive scientific and technological progress is not to me inherently good or inherently evil. But its arc is for us to shape. Technology’s progress is furthermore in my judgment unstoppable. But it is quite incorrect that it unfolds inexorably according to its own internal logic and the laws of nature.”
The United States and Russia have removed thousands of nuclear warheads from deployment, yet their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium remain undiminished. Recent bilateral efforts to irradiate plutonium in nuclear reactors, thus converting it to a less-weaponizable material, were stymied by the inability of the United States to overcome the associated technical, economic, and organizational challenges. The US decision to instead bury plutonium in a geologic repository prompted Russian suspension of the reciprocal reduction scheme, based on fears that this material would later be recovered and reincorporated in the US arsenal. Is the burial of plutonium comparable to other means of elimination, or does it leave this material vulnerable to recovery? Prior work assumes that conventional quarrying or tunneling would be necessary for recovery, rendering it easily observable by even superficial monitoring. But advanced mining methods, entailing minimal surface disturbance and infrastructure, are increasingly used in the geologic extraction of related nuclear materials like uranium. Reassessment of the feasibility of plutonium recovery from a geologic repository, accounting for the role of advanced mining methods, reveals a strong technical basis for Russia’s opposition to burial. It further suggests interactions of plutonium stockpile reductions with prospects for nuclear disarmament and with societal attitudes regarding the role and utility of this dual-use material.
Cameron Tracy is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center. He earned his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on arms control and the reduction of nuclear and chemical weapon stockpiles. He previously held a fellowship at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Cameron was a 2018 Nuclear Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.