October 2002

Playing with plutonium

Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2002

[Posted 02/10/2002]

This weekend's scare over smuggled uranium in Turkey turned out to be a false alarm. But the danger of nuclear-weapons fuel falling into the hands of terrorists remains clear and present. All of which makes even stranger the Bush Administration's growing enthusiasm for using plutonium as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

Unlike the cheaper, safer low-enriched uranium that has become the staple of nuclear power generation, plutonium is the pure stuff of bombs. It is user-ready and compact enough to stash under a taxi seat; only a small amount could yield several nukes the order of the one that destroyed Nagasaki.

That's why plutonium - a primarily man-made material extracted from spent nuclear fuel - has been restricted in the U.s. to national defense uses. Going back to the mid-1970s, these columns fought an effort to commercialize plutonium use, and our allies included Dick Cheney, then President Ford's Chief of Staff.

In 1976, Mr. Ford stopped the use of plutonium for commercial-reactor fuel in the U.S. He argued that not only was plutonium a big money-loser, but it's commercial use entailed far too great risk of bomb material straying into rogue hands. In 1983, the U.S. wisely scrapped its biggest commercial R&D plutonium project, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor.

Well, here we go again. Under a deal signed between the U.S. and Russia during the Clinton years, and continued during the Clinton years, all sorts of new plans for plutonium are afoot. The original aim was to get rid of plutonium from the decommissioned arsenals of the Cold War by using it as fuel in nuclear reactors.

But that brings us right back to the risk of theft along the way. To feed today's reactors, which are geared for uranium, plutonium must first be fabricated into mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX. That means shipping it in weapons-ready form to MOX fabrication plants, then dispersing it among the reactors themselves. Even after it is blended into MOX fuel, plutonium is still relatively to separate out.

The amounts involved here are staggering, with the U.S. and Russia each pledging to run through 34 metric tons of plutonium, enough to make thousands of bombs. The whole process would take at least 20 years. We are somehow supposed to believe that even in Russia - not famous for top-flight inventory control - nothing would go astray.

Nor would this come cheap. Neither the Russia nor the U.S. has facilities for turning plutonium into commercial fuel. So to show the Russians we're serious, the Bush Energy Department has ordered a MOX plant in South Caroilina, over protests of Governor Jim Hodges, with plans to haul the plutonium-based fuel to reactors in North Carolina. Russia, pleading a shortage of funds, is looking to the U.S. for billions of dollars in subsidies to build its own MOX plant and possibly a fast-breeder reactor to run on almost pure plutonium.

Like all bad ideas, this one is getting worse. With the old taboo on commercial use of plutonium now gone, creative bureaucracies are proposing a while new generation of plutonium- 0based reactors. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has been talking up the idea, and none other than national Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - too young, perhaps, to recall the 1970s debate - enthused recently to the Financial Times about the vision of helping Russia to develop a generation of fast-breeder (plutonium-fueled) reactors.

It's problem enough for the world that a number of nations still engage in commercial reprocessing of plutonium, including France, Britain, India and Japan. These programs have been struggling due to high costs. The sooner they're gone the better. Commercial use of plutonium is a gift to the world's terrorists and rogue states. It would be folly for the U.S. to head any further down this path, and it's twice nuts to even think of subsidizing Russia for such a project.

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