Wall Street Journal, October 2, 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.
of which makes even stranger the Bush Administration's growing
enthusiasm for using plutonium as fuel for commercial nuclear
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.
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
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
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)
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.