February 2003

Why Not Just Bury It?

The Moscow Times, February 3, 2003
By Matt Bivens

[Posted 03/02/2003]

When the White House announced last week it would spend an additional $312 million next year on securing Russia's loose nuclear materials, it was a major turnaround. The Bush team had previously tended to applaud such work but then quietly undercut it.

Had they finally seen the light? Had they finally recognized the post-Soviet Pandora's Box -- plutonium stocks, uranium stocks, tactical nukes, phosgene, sarin, soman, VX, mustard gas, etc. -- as the greatest threat to U.S. and world security?

Yes and no. It turns out that the new spending is almost all to build a nuclear factory in South Carolina. In fact, U.S. spending for work within Russia to secure dangerous weapons and materials has been cut or held flat.

Some 40 Chechens recently brought off a major paramilitary operation in downtown Moscow; men wielding clubs just overran a once-secret facility in Kyrgyzstan and stole hundreds of kilograms of a powder useful in nuclear reactors; but it seems we are scaling back on our work to secure Russia's scariest weapons so that the U.S. nuclear industry can get a little fatter.

Well, perhaps that's not fair. After all, this new South Carolina installation is all part of a plan to do something about the extra plutonium lying around. The United States and Russia have each pledged to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium (for comparison, a soda can's worth of plutonium is enough for a nuclear bomb). There are two options under consideration:

1. Bury it.

2. Build monster factories in South Carolina and Russia to mix plutonium with uranium to create an uneconomical plutonium-based reactor fuel called MOX; make expensive modifications to some nuclear power plants in both countries, and then run the MOX fuel through the reactors of those plants to generate electricity (but again, at higher prices than just using uranium); when done remove the spent fuel, which will still include the plutonium (!), from the reactor; and finally -- having lost money at every step of the process, from fuel fabrication to reactor modifications to electricity generation -- bury it.

The Bush administration push is for option No. 2. This is so even though the conservative governor of South Carolina, a Republican-friendly state, famously pledged to lie on the roadway to block incoming plutonium shipments.

Oh yes, that's another up side: a commercial trade in plutonium-based fuels.

To break free of the mind-numbing nuclear jargon, think about the disposal of plutonium as if it were an indestructible strain of anthrax. "Let's bury it," someone says. "No," the White House counters, "Let's soak thousands of logs in this anthrax, then ship the anthrax logs to burn in special furnaces to create heat. No, it won't be cheaper -- actually it will be more expensive. And no, it won't destroy the anthrax -- actually, we'll have to gather up all the ashes and then bury them." Hmm.

Why not just bury the plutonium? The United States' MOX boosters offer a non-explanation: It's the Russians' fault. They aren't very good at markets, poor Rooskies, and they think plutonium is valuable. So, they won't just bury it -- but they will use it as fuel and then bury it, even if that's far more costly and dangerous. But the Russians also say they won't even do that unless we do, too.

Therefore, naturally, we've no choice but to do what the Russians do. Understand?

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes "The Daily Outrage" for The Nation. [www.thenation.com]

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