On Monday, February 6th the Bush administration is planning to unveil a new energy policy initiative. After a 30-year ban, the US is about to gut a key non-proliferation tool and resume nuclear reprocessing.
To the uninformed, reprocessing sounds as bland and harmless as, well, processed cheese. The nuclear industry has contributed to this notion by sometimes referring to reprocessing as "recycling".
Quite the contrary, nuclear reprocessing is a dangerous activity that, among other potentially catastrophic downsides, makes plutonium accessible for theft and use in atomic bombs.
Because of atomic weapons proliferation concerns, President Gerald Ford halted commercial nuclear reprocessing in 1976. His decision was re-affirmed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Since September 11, 2001 and the worldwide threat of terrorism, the policy makes more sense than ever.
The new initiative sends a confusing message to the world. How can the US government continue to urge, cajole and threaten "rogue" countries that want to reprocess -- while, simultaneously saying, oh, by the way, we're going to do it in the US? What shred of legitimacy will the US have in negotiations to stop nuclear reprocessing in Iran, North Korea or, for that matter, Russia? Will Vladimir Putin idly sit by while Bush starts down this slippery slope?
One reason the Bush administration might get away with this alarming policy shift is that most people in the media, the US Congress and the general public are clueless as to what exactly is reprocessing. A quick look at the nuclear fuel cycle is in order.
Uranium fuel when it is first stacked inside a nuclear reactor is virtually harmless. With no ill affects you could touch it with your finger or stand alongside it.
Crank up a reactor and the uranium fuel fissions or splits. (This produces vast amounts of heat that, depending upon the type of reactor, boils water or produces steam to turn the reactor's turbines.) After this process has gone on for about 18 months, the fissioning process has created irradiated or "spent" fuel. This fuel is now so radioactive a person standing next to it would receive a lethal dose of radioactivity -- in a matter of seconds.
What makes the spent fuel radioactive is stunning amounts of nasty stuff like cesium, strontium and plutonium. Of particular concern from the proliferation viewpoint is plutonium. The average 1000-megawatt reactor makes 350 pounds of plutonium per year.
Finding it hard to conceive what this figure means? It might help to remember that 7 pounds of plutonium is enough for one Nagasaki-sized bomb or for one mushroom cloud like the one Condoleezza Rice exploited to build support for the Iraq war.
One speck of plutonium (aptly named after Pluto, the Greek God of Hell), if inhaled, can cause lung cancer.
The toxic spent fuel must be stored under 20-30 feet of water. Ergo, the swimming-pool-like-basins full of water in which spent or irradiated fuel is stored at nuclear power plants.
Here's how reprocessing works: Remove the irradiated fuel from the reactor pool, chop it up into bits, dissolve the fuel in a chemical bath and you can extract the plutonium. Now it's available for use in nuclear bombs. This is exactly how the US obtained the plutonium for the thousands of atomic bombs in its nuclear arsenal.
A highly radioactive and corrosive soup is left over after reprocessing. This soup is also extraordinarily toxic and thermally hot. This liquid waste is so thermally hot that if put into a tank it will self-boil. In other words, the liquid boils without being heated by an external heat source. Thus, it has to be constantly cooled and stored for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Reprocessing in the US has permanently poisoned vast underground water systems -- about 200 square miles in the case of the Hanford nuclear weapons factory. It's also contaminated large chunks of the Columbia and Savannah Rivers. It's left behind millions of gallons of high-level liquid nuclear waste sitting in corroding, leaking tanks.
The launchers of the new initiative are not going to talk about Hanford. Any reference to environmental problems will be glossed over by talking about a new dawn in nuclear energy, "recycling" and other meaningless bromides.
The Bush administration does know, however, that members of Congress and the media are worried about proliferation issues. In their characteristically very-smart- and-utterly-stupid way, they're offering a fake -- and untested -- "solution."
Here's where the administration gets to use the magical word recycling." The plutonium is "recycled" into nuclear reactors.
After chopping up the nation's spent fuel and dissolving it in chemical baths, the plan is to mix the separated plutonium with uranium to produce what's called mixed-oxide fuel or MOX fuel. Voilŕ, fuel for the nation's 103 commercial reactors and for the next generation of new nukes!
This "solution" is phony. MOX fuel poses a serious terrorist-proliferation danger, because it means tons of nuclear fuel traveling the highways and railroads of America. This is fuel from which plutonium can be easily extracted.
According to Damon Moglen spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "it's a magnet for terrorists who wish to seize and use nuclear weapons materials." Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency categorizes MOX as a Category 1 material. This means that from a proliferation viewpoint MOX is the most sensitive substance.
Furthermore, even with MOX fuel "recycling" there is still left behind (to be stored in leaky tanks for literally thousands of years) an extremely toxic liquid.
Back in 2005, Bill Magwood, Director of the US Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology said, "One test that it [UREX] has not yet passed is the proliferation resistant test." (UREX is the name of the new reprocessing technology the administration is touting.)
Despite the earlier Department of Energy assertion, administration officials now say their new reprocessing technology will be proliferation-resistant. Many experts, nuclear physicists and other scientists disagree. The UREX process is a new, untested technology and the factory to employ it hasn't even been built. And won't be built for years.
So how does the US reprocess in the meantime? Here's the real kicker: Apparently talks are underway for the US to send its spent fuel abroad, possibly to France, to be reprocessed there. This means extraordinarily hazardous shipments by sea, putting the world's oceans at risk and presenting terrorists with a sitting duck target.
Why is the administration pushing such a dangerous and stupid technology? It's simple. Very simple. It's a giant favor to the nuclear industry.
Reprocessing would takes the pressure off of the nuclear utilities who are sick of having all this toxic, irradiated fuel building up at the reactor sites. It would temporarily reduce the need for the expensive, problem-plagued Yucca Mountain high-level-nuclear-waste repository in Nevada. Most importantly, it would open the door to the nuclear industry's top priority: more nukes.
It's a dream for the utilities and a nightmare for the American public -- and for the world.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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