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The plutonium economy: a terrible idea that refuses to die

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Plutonium: How Nuclear Power's Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare

Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo, Jungmin Kang


Springer Singapore

Available as a hard copy or ebook

Terrible ideas seem never to die, and the nuclear industry provides plenty of examples.

Generation after generation, the industry tries but fails to develop 'small modular reactors'.1

No matter how many countries try but fail to develop high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (including sub-types such as the pebble-bed modular reactor), there's always another country willing to try and fail.2 (The first ever issue of Nuclear Monitor, in 1978, reported on an HTGR with "bullet-shaped fuel elements" ‒ researchers had already been working on the concept for a decade.3)

Pangea Resources tried but failed to turn Australia into the world's nuclear waste dump 20 years ago.4 A coalition of interests tried again, and failed again, a few years ago.5 A coalition of interests will try again, and fail again, sometime in the future.

Five years after the Obama administration nixed the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, President Trump revived it. Now, Trump has apparently nixed it, to win more votes in Nevada in the November election.6 But the project will likely be revived if Trump wins a second presidential term … and perhaps nixed again ahead of the 2024 election.

The 2000‒2008 Bush administration tried to revive the plutonium fuel cycle with its failed 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant Project'7 and a failed effort to resume domestic reprocessing. Now, the Trump administration wants to partner with industry to build an experimental fast reactor (the 'Versatile Test Reactor')8 and is promoting a resumption of domestic reprocessing.9 Both projects will likely fail again, and be revived again, ad infinitum.

The plutonium fuel cycle ‒ arguably the worst, most dangerous example of a terrible idea that refuses to die ‒ is the subject of an excellent new book, Plutonium: How nuclear power's dream fuel became a nightmare (hereafter Plutonium Nightmare), by Frank von Hippel (from Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security), Jungmin Kang (former chair of South Korea's Nuclear Safety and Security Commission) and Masafumi Takubo (a consultant for Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security).

Of course, the plutonium fuel cycle is not a cycle but an expensive, dangerous hotchpotch of mostly failed (and mostly closed) fast reactors, reprocessing plants, MOX fuel fabrication plants, and stockpiles of nuclear waste and weapons-usable plutonium.

The story is outlined by Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1997 to 2009, in the foreword to Plutonium Nightmare:

"At a time of high uranium prices, a plutonium fuel cycle was estimated to be competitively cost effective. Its proponents regarded plutonium as a "wonder fuel" that could generate a practically infinite amount of energy if produced in a closed fuel cycle, that is, uranium irradiated and discharged as spent fuel would be reprocessed to separate plutonium for fuels to be used in breeder reactors to create yet more plutonium.

"Over time, however, these optimistic expectations gave way to the realities of new sources of recoverable uranium at low prices, costly engineering challenges, and the complexities of safeguarding reprocessing and the related proliferation concerns. Reprocessing is one of the two most sensitive nuclear technologies from a proliferation perspective, along with uranium enrichment."

The story will be familiar to Nuclear Monitor readers, but Plutonium Nightmare is well worth the modest cost as the book brings an unusual degree of depth, clarity and insight to the discussion.

The book chapters are as follows:

The dream:

‒ A future powered by plutonium

The nightmares:

‒ Civilian plutonium separation and nuclear-weapon proliferation

‒ Continuation of plutonium separation without breeder reactors

‒ A much worse accident that almost happened in Fukushima: a fire in a dense-packed spent-fuel pool

The path forward:

‒ Early dry-cask storage: a safer alternative to dense-packed pools and reprocessing

‒ Deep disposal of spent fuel without reprocessing

‒ The case for a ban on plutonium separation

How to end the plutonium nightmare?

von Hippel, Kang and Takubo argue that:

  • Reprocessing is unnecessary, uneconomic and dangerous (on several counts ‒ routine emissions, accidents and weapons proliferation), and should be abolished altogether.
  • Current high-density pool storage of spent fuel is dangerous and also creates pressure for reprocessing. Spent fuel should be transferred to air-cooled dry-cask storage after about five years of cooling in pools. Dry-cask storage provides a safer alternative that can be relied on for at least several decades.
  • In the longer term, spent fuel should not be subject to reprocessing (in any of its variants) before being disposed of in deep repositories.

But what needs to change to untangle and reverse the bureaucratic, commercial and military interests that have created the problems? ElBaradei writes in the foreword to Plutonium Nightmare:

"In October 2003, as the then-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in an op-ed titled "Towards a safer world" in The Economist, I proposed the multilateralization of all uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities in view of the related proliferation concerns. I suggested that this should happen in three phases. First, any new uranium-enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing facilities should be set up exclusively on a multinational basis; second, over time convert all existing facilities to be operated under multinational auspices; and, third, negotiate a treaty on the prohibition of production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and place all existing stocks of military nuclear material under international monitoring.

"Unfortunately, not much has happened on this score, and much more work clearly needs to be done to curb the proliferation potential of these two most sensitive technologies."

Tom Blees, an advocate of 'integral fast reactors', goes further:10

"Privatized nuclear power should be outlawed worldwide, with complete international control of not only the entire fuel cycle but also the engineering, construction, and operation of all nuclear power plants. Only in this way will safety and proliferation issues be satisfactorily dealt with. Anything short of that opens up a Pandora's box of inevitable problems."

Blees also argues for a strengthened safeguards system including the establishment of an international "strike force on full standby" to respond in the event of a nuclear facility falling into "hostile hands".10

But none of Blees' big ideas have seen the light of day (and neither have integral fast reactors). ElBaradei's more modest proposals have also gone nowhere (with the exception of the IAEA's uranium fuel bank).

So multilateral and international control aren't looming as solutions or part-solutions (all the more so since there are credible scenarios whereby multilateral initiatives would worsen the problems11).

Gentlemen's agreements have failed. Plutonium Nightmare cites the half-hearted effort in the 1990s to stem the growth in stockpiles of separated plutonium:

"Over the next two decades, the United Kingdom demonstrated how far this guideline could be stretched by increasing its stock of separated plutonium by another 60 tons ‒ 7,500 weapon-equivalents by the IAEA's metric ‒ with no planned use. ... Russia, also without a near-term plutonium-use program, similarly increased its stock by another 30 tons while France and Japan, despite having plutonium-use programs, each also increased their stock by about 30 tons."

Thus, as Plutonium Nightmare notes, the global stockpile of civilian separated plutonium continues to grow and, assuming 8 kg of plutonium for a warhead (the IAEA's metric), current stocks of about 300 tons of civilian separated plutonium would suffice to build more than 35,000 Nagasaki-type warheads.

Perhaps political leadership could succeed where gentlemen's agreements have failed? Plutonium Nightmare notes that US governments prevented the military rulers of Brazil, South Korea, Pakistan, and Taiwan from acquiring reprocessing plants. But leadership on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament hasn't been a strong point of the Trump administration, and the administration is pushing to revive domestic reprocessing and fast reactor fantasies as well as 'modernizing' its nuclear strike-force and ripping up multilateral and international arms control agreements.

Leadership from France? In addition to France's considerable historical contribution to weapons programs and proliferation risks around the world, France is currently trying to sell a large reprocessing plant to China despite the security and proliferation risks and the absence of any credible rationale for the plant.12

Perhaps people-power could succeed given the dearth of political leadership? The plutonium nightmare would be considerably worse if not for the countless thousands of people who have fought against plutonium fuel cycle facilities over the decades. There have been martyrs ‒ in 1977, for example, one person was murdered, two mutilated and 100 injured by police during a 60,000 strong protest against the Superphenix fast reactor in France.3 The first article in the first ever issue of Nuclear Monitor, in 1978, addressed international resistance to reprocessing and fast reactors.3

Plutonium Nightmare cites the example of German and Austrian anti-nuclear campaigners who stopped the construction of a reprocessing plant in Bavaria in the 1980s. Later, people-power was central to the German government's decision to phase out the overseas processing of spent fuel from German reactors.

Of the countless other examples of public resistance to the plutonium economy, a notable recent example is the strong, brave resistance to the siting of a reprocessing plant in the Chinese coastal city of Lianyungang.12


Leadership from the IAEA? Not since Mohamed ElBaradei's tenure as IAEA Director-General ended in 2009. In articles and speeches during his tenure, ElBaradei said that the safeguards system suffers from "vulnerabilities" and "clearly needs reinforcement", that the IAEA's basic rights of inspection are "fairly limited", that efforts to improve the system have been "half-hearted", and that the safeguards system operates on a "shoestring budget ... comparable to that of a local police department".

The same could be said today. Former Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office, Dr. John Carlson, wrote in 2018:13

"A former IAEA Director General used to say the IAEA's safeguards budget was less than that of a major city police force. Some thought this was an exaggeration, but in fact it is a massive understatement ‒ for example, the IAEA's annual safeguards budget is equivalent to a little over 3 percent of the budget for the City of New York Police Department. While the tasks are very different, this comparison illustrates that the current level of safeguards funding is extraordinarily low considering safeguards are at the front line in global efforts against the proliferation of nuclear weapons."

ElBaradei fought for greater funding for the IAEA's safeguards program, albeit with little success. The current IAEA Director-General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, is an old-school industry propagandist who recently said that the IAEA cannot demand more resources at a time when many of its member states are struggling with their own national budgets.14 But he'll find resources to expand the IAEA's work promoting nuclear power ‒ resources that would be better deployed on the IAEA's safeguards, safety and security work.

You won't hear this from Grossi, but resolution of the plutonium nightmare partly depends on the much bigger nightmare of nuclear weaponry. The greater (or lesser) the interest in pursuing weapons, the greater (or lesser) the interest in fast reactors and reprocessing (and nuclear power more generally).

Battles against nuclear power and weapons are two sides of the same coin. A strong safeguards system could break the nexus between power and weapons, but there won't be any progress under Grossi's leadership.


The hopeless economics of the plutonium economy, coupled with people-power, provide some hope.

The UK's THORP reprocessing plant ran out of domestic and international customers and closed in 2018, and the MOX plant was closed in 2011. Both were abject failures.15

China's plan for a French-designed reprocessing plant has repeatedly stalled because of the US$22.7 billion price tag16 as well as public opposition. China has a very small experimental fast reactor, and in 2017 began construction of a larger demonstration fast reactor.

Russia postponed plans for a 1200-megawatt fast reactor last year because of funding constraints17 (and abandoned plans for a civilian reprocessing plant in the 1990s because of funding constraints).

France persists with reprocessing and MOX fuel fabrication, but gave up on its fast reactor fantasies last year, abandoning plans for an experimental fast reactor called ASTRID.18

India remains a problem, albeit a problem that is decades behind schedule. The budget for India's Fast Breeder Test Reactor was approved in 1971 but the reactor only attained first criticality in 1985 and it wasn't until 1997 that it started supplying a small amount of electricity to the grid. Preliminary design work for a larger Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor began in 1985 and construction began in 2004 ... but the reactor still hasn't begun operation.

Likewise, Japan remains a problem, albeit a problem that is decades behind schedule. Japan persists with the construction of a large reprocessing plant and a MOX fuel fabrication plant at Rokkasho, but no longer has any operable fast reactors and no longer has the option of joint involvement in France's abandoned ASTRID project.

The number of fast reactors worldwide peaked at 12 in the late 1980s (a large majority of them experimental or prototype reactors) and has dwindled to five currently (all of them ‒ three in Russia, one each in India and China ‒ classified by the World Nuclear Association as experimental or demonstration reactors).19

Number of fast reactors worldwide (inc. experimental facilities):19

















As fast reactor fantasies fade, the plutonium economy will necessarily focus on the use of uranium/plutonium MOX fuel in conventional reactors. But, as Plutonium Nightmare notes, the economics of MOX are "terrible".

And the economics of nuclear power more generally are terrible ‒ that's why it is returning to its roots as a state enterprise, often connected to weapons programs and ambitions.

More information

‒ International Panel on Fissile Material, July 2015, 'Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs: Status, Problems, and Prospects of Civilian Reprocessing Around the World',

‒ Nuclear Monitor #763, 13 June 2013, The Plutonium Problem,

‒ International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 2010, 'Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status',

‒ Nuclear Monitor #881, 9 Dec 2019, 'The 'advanced' nuclear power sector is dystopian' and 'The 'advanced' nuclear power sector isn't advancing ‒ thankfully',

‒ Lengthy interviews with Frank von Hippel published in the Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament in 2019 and 2020,


1. M.V. Ramana, 27 April 2015, 'The Forgotten History of Small Nuclear Reactors',

2. Nuclear Monitor #872‒73, 7 March 2019, 'High-temperature, gas-cooled zombie SMRs',

3. Nuclear Monitor #1, May 1978, 'Re-processing: the weakest link',



6. Allison Macfarlane, 21 Feb 2020, 'The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site has always been a political football. Trump is the latest president to fumble',

7. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP)',

8. Ed Lyman, 15 Feb 2018, 'The "Versatile Fast Neutron Source": A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project',

9. Frank von Hippel, 5 Feb 2020, 'U.S. Department of Energy "exploring" spent fuel reprocessing again',

10. Tom Blees, 'Prescription for the Planet',

11. Greenpeace, 26 Sept 2005, 'The Real Face of the IAEA's Multilateral Nuclear Approaches: The proliferation of nuclear weapon material & environmental contamination',

12. Nuclear Monitor #829, 24 Aug 2016, 'Protests against proposed reprocessing plant in China',

13. John Carlson, Nov 2018, 'Future Directions in IAEA Safeguards',

14. World Nuclear Association, 6 Feb 2020, 'Grossi sets out vision to 'recalibrate' the IAEA',

15. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, 12 Nov 2018, 'An epitaph for Sellafield's THORP reprocessing plant – 'Never did what it said on the tin'',

16. Matthew Bunn, Hui Zhang, and Li Kang, Jan 2016, 'The Cost of Reprocessing in China',

17. Anatoli Diakov and Pavel Podvig, "Construction of Russia's BN-1200 fast-neutron reactor delayed until 2030s, 20 August 2019, accessed 27 October 2019,

18. Appendix 2 in NGO submission to 2019 Australian nuclear inquiry,

19. World Nuclear Association, Sept 2016, 'Fast Neutron Reactors',