Opposition to Reprocessing Are the Reports Always True?

One of the reasons this letter focuses on the issue of recycling and waste minimization is that there has been a recent full court press in the opinion sections of major newspapers and in Congressional hearing rooms to stiffen the U. S. government’s already extreme policy limiting the use of plutonium in energy generating plants.

In case you have missed the debate, here are the statements that are being offered by a small but influential group of people opposed to the commercial use of plutonium:

  • Source: In literature sent out by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington D.C. based special interest group, the statement is offered that MOX fuel costs four to eight times as much as virgin uranium fuels.
  • Date: June 8, 1994
    Source: In an article from the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal
    , Paul Leventhal of the NCI called for the Clinton administration to follow a policy of disposing of retired warheads as waste instead of converting it for fuel for reactors.
  • Date: April 4, 1994
    Source: In an article from the op-ed section of the Wall Street Journal
    , Albert Wohlstetter, the man who headed the 1975 study leading to the U.S. abandonment of nuclear fuel recycle programs and Gregory Jones, a defense consultant, stated “It has long been plain that plutonium for electric power has a largely negative value. The civilian benefits are a myth.”
  • Date: January 25, 1995
    Source: In an opinion piece in the New York Times op-ed page
    , Paul Leventhal and Daniel Horner, the Deputy director of the Nuclear Control Institute, warned of a growing trade in nuclear fuel materials.
  • Date: June 6, 1994
    Source: In testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of the the U.S. Congress
    , Paul Leventhal concluded a 16 page report by stating, “I hope the Committee will consider issuing a report on the unfavorable economics and lack of need for plutonium. The plutonium industry represents a gross distortion of the free market. It is an industry that insists on churning out a valueless product for which there is no market.”
  • Date: November 22, 1994
    Source: In an article in the Disarmament Times
    , Mr. Leventhal stated, “The benefits of atoms for peace are also greater if plutonium is not separated from spent fuel and not ‘recycled’ as power-reactor fuel since the ‘once-through’ fuel cycle (in which plutonium is disposed of as waste) is cheaper, safer, more safeguardable, and less controversial than reprocessing.”
  • Source: In a well timed declassification, the Department of Energy of the United States released information regarding the test of a bomb made with “reactor grade” plutonium in 1962. This report has been mentioned in almost all of the above sources. Interestingly enough, the Secretary of Energy has received specific praise by the NCI for her stand in opposing the use of plutonium recycle.

Logical, reasonable people should find ample reason to be uncomfortable with the above statements, if they have any inkling of the potential energy stored in plutonium. Even without that knowledge, it seems strange for an organization to be advocating the disposal of material that highly competent technicians say is useful.

One might also question the group’s resistance to a plan that removes plutonium, with its 24,000 year half-life from irradiated nuclear fuels. Most of the isotopes in the waste stream from reprocessing plants have less than a 30 year half-life. The material decays to an activity less than the original uranium ore in less than 300 years.

The Whole Truth

Some of the statements being made are false. For example, according to the OECD’s 1992 Nuclear Power Economics and Technology: An Overview, MOX fuel costs between 0.35 and 0.45 cents per kilowatt hour produced. That is essentially the same price as virgin uranium fuel using today’s price of natural uranium.

The DOE’s press releases about the bomb made from “reactor grade” plutonium are, at best, confusing. The material for the bomb came from a British dual purpose reactor type (weapons material and power production) known as MAGNOX. The fuel had a very low burn-up and a low concentration of plutonium isotopes heavier than Pu-239. Most weapons designers agree that it would be extremely difficult to make a bomb with fuel that has the isotopic concentration of today’s light water reactor fuel.

It would be easy to dismiss the influence of a pressure group with as thin a stable of writers as the NCI, but they have been able to make their arguments heard by influential decision makers.

Partly as a result of their pressure, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a project in the final stages of demonstrating a closed fuel cycle, was cancelled by the Clinton Administration.

According to Dr. Terry Lash, the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy for the Department of Energy, “the program was found to be inconsistent with U. S. nonproliferation policies.” The IFR was designed specifically to keep all nuclear materials within the security boundaries of the plant with no possibility of diversion. There is no way the project could have contributed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

There is nothing new in the arguments offered by the Nuclear Control Institute. The Carter Administration’s 1977 policy towards nuclear fuel recycling was influenced by a report Ford Foundation report titled, “Nuclear Power Issues and Choices” written by a group of professors of political science and economics. The report, published more than 20 years ago, focused on the proliferation risks that would be presented by a world expansion of the “plutonium economy,” by recycling plutonium in light water reactors or using it in fast breeders.

The group is using recycled arguments that are at least 20 years old, ignoring years worth of research and development, yet they seem to be winning the debate. Incredible!

About Rod Adams