One of the biggest threats to the continued wealth and power held by the global fossil fuel industry is a “plutonium economy” fueled by abundant resources of uranium that can be converted into fissile plutonium in a breeder reactor. (Yes, I know that a thorium economy is just as big of a threat to the dominant position of fossil fuels, but the understanding of the potential impact of that technology is less widespread than the understanding of fast breeder reactors.)
Of course, the fossil fuel industry has always employed plenty of experts in the field of communications. They also have a huge following of friends in the media, in finance and in government who have profited immensely by the hydrocarbon economy and would love to see those profitable relationships continue. Hydrocarbon communications experts and their friends recognized many decades ago that there would not be too many tears shed if they accurately explained why they were threatened by the idea of carbon based fuels being replaced in the energy market by concentrated fissile fuels, so they developed a much more effective sales pitch.
By helping to reinforce scary images of nuclear war and tying the fears inspired by those images to the materials used in building bombs, the antiplutonium propaganda machine has convinced many decision makers and voters that innovative machinery that turns relatively worthless uranium into useful fuel are secretly designed by mad scientists intent on creating bomb material. As one result of the effective campaign against plutonium, President Carter outlawed nuclear fuel recycling and turned multibillion dollar investments at Barnwell, South Carolina and at Clinch River, Tennessee from potentially profitable production facilities into expensive, non-functional eyesores.
Today, the propaganda machine is still actively working to stoke fears of plutonium because the material is still a strong threat to the prosperity of the fossil fuel industry.
After all, plutonium, like uranium and thorium, contains 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil. It releases that energy in the form of heat that can be converted into useful power in machines that are essentially identical to the heat engines used to convert coal heat into useful energy. It can be used in machines that are almost identical to those used to convert natural gas or diesel fuel heat into useful power, but that method is not yet in common use. Not only is heat from plutonium abundant and concentrated (which vastly reduces the transportation infrastructure required to supply power plants) fission heat also comes without any emissions of CO2, CO, SOX, NOX, fly ash, mercury or any of the other atmospheric pollution produced by burning stuff dug out of the ground.
This evening, at the Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there will be a public hearing about one way of using plutonium that is sure to be both informative and entertaining. The hearing is being held to obtain public comments on the Department of Energy’s Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The agency’s preferred alternative for disposing of 34 tons of plutonium made surplus by an arms agreement with Russia is to mix that fissile material with uranium to create a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that is compatible with our current generation of light water reactors.
Aside: From a nuclear standpoint, plutonium is an almost exact replacement for uranium-235, which is the fissile part of low enriched nuclear fuel. By mixing Pu-239 from decomissioned nuclear weapons with either natural or depleted uranium in concentrations of about 5% Pu to 95% U, a MOX fuel rod will work just like an LEU fuel rod and last just as long in the reactor. The difference is that the process gets rid of unwanted material and does not require the effort or energy investment required to enrich natural uranium. End Aside.
People opposed to the use of plutonium would prefer for the valuable, energy-dense material to be encapsulated into glass logs and buried deep into the earth’s crust where even smarter future generations will have trouble getting to it. They want to ensure that it is never used for productive purposes that compete with other forms of energy. Word has it that some antiplutonium demonstrators are planning to dress up as zombies to protest the conversion of weapons material into fuel for electricity generating stations. The zombies will be the entertaining part of the evening.
Though I spent my first career as a part of the military industrial complex, I share concerns about nuclear weapons with some of the people who are going to be in costume. However, I prefer using a process that permanently eliminates the material while providing a useful product. Once fissioned, the plutonium can never fission again.
The informative part of the evening will be the comments provided by members of the American Nuclear Society who are going to attend the meeting and take the opportunity to express their facts and figures about the value of the material and the moral imperative of turning weapons into useful electrical power that can be used for an incredible array of useful applications. I hope that some of the ANS members also take advantage of the opportunity to express their pride and emotional connection with the technology that has so much potential for making life better for the vast majority of the world’s population that is not engaged in the business of selling fossil fuel.
PS My personal feeling about using MOX technology to purposely get rid of plutonium is akin to the way I would feel about using ethanol technology to get rid of seed corn. However, it is not terribly difficult for us to make more plutonium once we have overcome the irrational fear of the material that has been instilled by the sustained propaganda campaign supported by the energy establishment.
One more related note – the Russians have decided to use fast reactor technology instead of MOX to dispose of their agreed 34 tons of surplus weapons material. A recent article in Spiegel Online, which was marred by significant quantities of misinformation about the basics of fast reactors, gives me some concern about the BN-800. I like fast reactor technology, but I am worried because Russia is almost as dependent on hydrocarbon sales for its wealth and power as Saudi Arabia is.
The statements in Spiegel’s Russia To Produce Electricity with Former Nukes made by an anonymous worker on the construction project lead me to believe that there is at least some possibility that the energy decision makers in Russia are setting up conditions that will result in their new fast reactor having enough problems to discourage everyone else from trying the technology. Though just one man was the source of the interview information it seems apparent that there might be significant safety culture and quality control issues on the project.