Not Just Bury It?
The Moscow Times, February 3, 2003
By Matt Bivens
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]