On December 9, 1996, the United States Department of Energy issued a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that advocated an investigation of two possible alternatives for handling plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons.
One option is to combine the plutonium with uranium to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel that can be used in conventional nuclear reactor plants. The second alternative is immobilize the plutonium in a glass matrix – a process that is also known as vitrification – and to bury the resulting glass logs deep in the ground.
With the first option, raw material useful for producing extremely powerful weapons is converted into a fuel material that cannot explode and cannot be purified without enormous capital investments. As the fuel is consumed in a reactor, the destructive potential of the plutonium gradually disappears since each atom can only fission once. Though this fuel is approximately 10 percent more costly than fuel made from virgin uranium (at current market prices) it is substantially (60-90 percent) less expensive on an energy content basis than competitive fossil fuels.
With the second option, former weapons plutonium is bonded with glass into a chemically stable form that cannot be corroded in a natural environment. However, simple glass chemistry can remove purified plutonium from the glass. With this scheme, no plutonium is converted into energy or other products, no income is produced, and the full explosive potential of the plutonium remains for millennia.
For people not schooled in the politics of plutonium, it would seem rather obvious which choice should be made. A program allocating funds to study the issue would seem like an excellent candidate for a Golden Fleece award.
The reality is that the U.S. government has already spent billions of dollars on this debate during the past twenty years and shows every likelihood of continuing the expenditures without hope of a resolution.
When plutonium policy and politics mix, strange results can occur. People who would normally be horrified at the idea of someone putting an aluminum can into the trash strongly recommend that plutonium be considered a “waste” product, utility plant operators make comments about their willingness to be paid to take fuel, and companies normally considered part of the nuclear industry begin to lobby their congressional representatives to ensure that MOX is studied – at great length – before being introduced into the market.
In the debate you will also find people seriously suggesting that the world should be concerned that plutonium in the hands of the Swiss government represents a risk of nuclear war, that Japanese and Korean businessmen cannot compute costs, and that a material with an incredible concentration of stored energy that can be released without contributing a molecule of carbon dioxide to the environment is not “needed.”
In this issue of AEI, we will publish – in its entirety – a press release from a coalition of groups normally claiming the environmentalist label advocating that the government eliminate the MOX fuel option from consideration. We also have some contributions from Theodore Rockwell and Michael Fox, both distinguished members of the community of people who believe that valuable material should be put to use to serve humans, and who believe that burying it thousands of feet underground in an expensive hole is not good stewardship of the world’s resources.