THE challenge of effectively tracking, managing, storing, and disposing of a mounting inventory of nuclear materials and wastes, both within the U.S. and abroad, has attracted increased attention during the past several years. With the end of the Cold War, many national experts agree that now is the right time, despite enormous technical and nontechnical challenges, to develop a systematic and rational framework for shaping policy regarding the use and management of nuclear materials.
On December 6, 1996, John A. Young, co-chairman of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, wrote President Clinton urging him "to continue, strengthen, expand, and better coordinate these national and international efforts in the management, protection, and disposition of nuclear materials."
By law and federal policy, the Department of Energy is centrally involved in U.S. nuclear materials stewardship. The department's specific responsibilities are enormous:
  • A growing inventory of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, currently exceeding 32,000 metric tons.
  • Over 2 million cubic meters of radioactive wastes of all types.
  • Hundreds of radioactively contaminated structures, including reactors, chemical processing facilities, and laboratories.
  • About 3.7 billion cubic meters of contaminated soil and groundwater at federal nuclear sites and other locations.
  • Over 600,000 tons of nuclear production materials, including highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
  • About 17,000 radioactive sources used for medicine, waste management, industry, and research.
    Compounding the complexity of the current situation is the fact that each area of DOE's nuclear materials responsibility has compelling technical, policy, economic, legal, institutional, and political ramifications at both national and international levels. For example, plutonium left over from retired Cold War weapon systems can be viewed by different constituencies as a nuclear weapon material, an energy source, an international proliferation threat, or a hazardous waste. It is all of these.
    As the article beginning on p. 4 illustrates, the management of plutonium disposition from large numbers of retired nuclear weapons has become an urgent task with significant environmental and security implications. We need sound disposition policies and plans to handle plutonium and enriched uranium in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. Such policies must also ensure that these materials never end up as part of makeshift nuclear weapons for a terrorist nation.
    Even more important, we need to step back and develop a systematic and rational framework for understanding and dealing with all use and management issues related to nuclear materials. With this framework, DOE and the nation's decision makers could more easily take into account all of the (often competing) issues to identify and assess opportunities, risks, and costs for various nuclear materials stewardship options.
    In the spirit of developing such a framework, DOE and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory sponsored a two-day workshop at Livermore last October. The Nuclear Materials Stewardship Policy Review Workshop, the first of three planned, brought together more than 70 experts from DOE, other federal agencies, national laboratories, non-government organizations, and universities. The workshop afforded participants an opportunity to look at the bigger picture by reviewing the complex issues associated with nuclear materials stewardship, including the amounts and types of materials, the uses and disposition pathways of these materials, and nonproliferation implications. Following the workshop, organizers set up a dedicated Web site on the Internet to continue their discussion.
    Through these workshops and other meetings, conferences, and communications, the DOE and the larger nuclear materials community are beginning to identify the information, tools, and resources needed to move ahead. Admittedly, this is an arduous task, but it is one that the public expects us to do and do well. As the remaining superpower, the U.S. has an opportunity and, in fact, an obligation to influence other nations' policies regarding the prudent management and use of nuclear materials in their care.
    As we move forward, it is certain that Lawrence Livermore will play a significant role in helping to build this new framework for nuclear materials stewardship. As experts in a variety of nuclear materials and processes, Livermore scientists and engineers have much to contribute to an area that is sure to grow in importance in the years ahead.

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