Plutonium Fuel Cycle: Under Attack
AEI would prefer to concentrate its efforts on discussing the incredible technical potential of nuclear energy while leaving the discussion of politics and personality to others. When trying to understand nuclear energy technical decisions, however, it is essential to understand some of the political issues involved.
For the last 20 years, there has been an organized, intensive effort to demonize plutonium. This valuable element has been inaccurately portrayed as the most deadly substance known to man, as a material that makes nuclear weapons construction mere child’s play, and even as a substance created by the devil. Some people have claimed that it was named after the devil, when it was simply named after the next planet in a pattern of naming heavy metal elements after planets. (Uranium, neptunium, then plutonium.)
As a result of the long term effort to warn of the hazards of a plutonium economy and an effort to codify irrational fear into the law of the land, it is now necessary to out into the hall at U.S. nuclear industry gatherings in order to suggest that plutonium is a useful reactor fuel rather than a waste material that must be eliminated.
Carter’s Anti Plutonium Policy
Breeder reactors that produce plutonium have been politically unpopular in the United States since they became a campaign issue during the 1976 presidential elections. James Earl Carter, a man who spent a mere 11 months in Navy nuclear schools in 1953-1954, ran a presidential campaign in which he was portrayed as a nuclear expert. During the race he made several important policy statements aimed against further developments in nuclear power.
Even though it was painfully obvious that fossil fuel energy suppliers were unreliable, the Carter Administration put the development of nuclear power on the bottom of the energy priority list and took breeder reactors completely off the list.
After his election he implemented several Executive Orders that established his anti nuclear stance as law. The immediate result of his policy was to shut down two projects in which commercial companies and the federal government had already invested hundreds of millions of dollars, Allied Chemical’s Barnwell, South Carolina reprocessing facility, and the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. In his book The Atomic Complex: A Worldwide Political History of Nuclear Energy, Bertrand Goldschmidt called Carter’s action an “extraordinary and unique act of self-mutilation.”
Sustainable Fuel Cycle
During the Reagan and Bush Administrations, breeder reactors received only luke-warm attention. President Reagan lifted the Executive Order which had banned the use of plutonium, and allowed the initiation of an experiment called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Neither Administration, however, saw a need to make any strongly supportive speeches about nuclear fuel recycling or the development of breeder reactors. Energy supply concerns evaporated in 1985 and 1986 when the world price of oil plummeted.
The IFR project was a program to to demonstrate a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle using an existing fast reactor known as Experimental Breeder Reactor II. Despite its name, the reactor had not been configured for breeding since the mid 1960s, having been used for nearly two decades in a variety of materials experiments in support of other research programs.
The idea for the IFR was to demonstrate a closed fuel cycle system with an on-site recycling capability. As designed, the system would take metallic fuel pins from the reactor and transfer them to a shielded recycling room. This facility was attached via concrete tunnels to the reactor containment building making material security a simple matter. The only new material coming into the 25 MWe power station would then be a small amount of uranium for adding to the recycled fuel material.
Clinton Removes Funding
Unfortunately, the time to test the IFR came after the election of a man whose appointees include many of the same people who crafted President Carter’s energy policy. President Clinton actually pledged to remove all funding from nuclear power research during his nationally televised inaugural address. So far, it seems that he is on track to keep this promise.
Terry Lash, a man who learned about energy issues as an employee of the anti-nuclear Natural Resources Defense Council, is the man in charge of nuclear reactor programs for the DoE. He has stated that the IFR system posed too great a risk of nuclear weapons proliferation to allow it to continue. EBR-II was shut down in September of 1994 and all fuel is now being removed from the reactor.
Breeders Continue in Japan
Because of the nature of the fuel, it cannot be stored for very long without processing it to separate the sodium — which is chemically reactive — from the radioactive fuel residue. It is currently illegal to store mixed hazardous and radioactive waste on a long term basis. The best facility for performing this separation is the already completed IFR electrorefining facility.
However, treatment of the fuel being removed from EBR-II is being held up by correspondence from a coalition of environmental organizations that includes the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Nuclear Control Institute. Their far-fetched claim is that the process – taking place in a building that has been used since 1964 for various nuclear fuel processing experiments, located in the middle of the Idaho desert at a secure DoE facility – may be both hazardous to the environment and pose a risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
While the U.S. Department of Energy works diligently to complete the destruction of the IFR project Japanese scientists – who have been participating as equity partners since the program’s inception – are working feverishly to transfer all of the technology that they can carry to their country’s growing breeder reactor research program.