Why does anyone oppose nuclear fuel recycling and breeder reactors?
The vocal arguments against recycling nuclear fuel focused on weapons and the concept of nuclear nonproliferation. It was a major topic in the mid 1970s with a large political impact. Part of the stimulus that brought the issue center stage was a test conducted in India. Using plutonium that had been recovered from the used fuel from a heavy water moderated research reactor, Indian scientists and engineers built a device that they called a peaceful nuclear explosive. Though some people cannot conceive of how such a device can be called peaceful, the use of explosives in construction and resource extraction industries is widespread enough that the US had a large program called the Plowshare Program with the goal of using fission based explosives to dig canals, create harbors, and free up “tight” natural gas reservoirs.
In 1974, the Indians tested their device. That upset a whole bunch of people, even though the device tested could never have been delivered by a plane or a missile – it was far too bulky. I spent some time discussing this topic a few days ago with Charles Ferguson a Fellow for Science and Technology for the Council on Foreign Relations. You can hear that conversation on Atomic Show number 80.
Though the nonproliferation movement already had some pretty strong legs, it seized on publicity that the event created and used that to scare people into action. Of course, since the movement was focused on gaining a particular action – halting nuclear fuel recycling – they emphasized the fact that the explosive used plutonium from recycled fuel and obscured the technical fact that there is a huge difference in the behavior of plutonium recovered from a heavy water moderated research reactor and the material that can be recovered from a normally operated power reactor.
By 1976, the issue was so important that it was one of the major topics of discussion leading up to the US presidential election. You can tell how important it was by taking a glance through the Statement on Nuclear Policy issued by President Ford on October 28, 1976, about 2 weeks before the election.
The statement is no simple political statement, but a lengthy, thoughtful policy statement that recognized the fact that there were legitimate reasons for taking a measured approach to using technology that had the ability to fundamentally change the world’s political balance. You can find a transcript of that statement on Atomic Insights at President Ford: Statement on Nuclear Policy October 28, 1976. If you can think about how busy a president and his staff can be in the run up to an election, you can tell from the depth of the statement that it was a major effort with a high priority.
Encouraging recycling could lead to a large market in plutonium for power reactors and could encourage a rapidly growing industry based on using that material as the seed for breeder and converter reactors. With breeder reactors, you are no longer limited to using the 0.7% of uranium that is U-235, but you can use the 99.3% that is U-238 and you can use the four times greater resource represented by thorium 232. Both of these materials contain vast quantities of potential energy and they will readily fission if they are hit by two neutrons – the first one converts fertile material to a fissile material (Pu-239 or U-233 respectively) the second splits the odd-numbered isotopes to release energy.
There are at least two interpretations to the fear of a plutonium based economy. One is the surface argument. Having more plutonium in the world somehow makes it more likely that someone somewhere will succeed in obtaining enough plutonium to put together a bomb. Anyone who has read Richard Rhodes’s excellent history The Making of the Atomic Bomb and has any understanding of science, engineering and industry will realize just how much more time and effort is required between obtaining the material and making a bomb, particularly one that can be delivered to a target.
The interpretation that matches my understanding of human behavior – especially that of rich and powerful people – is more cynical. I think treating used nuclear fuel is a resource that enables a growing use of fission scares the hell out of people who profit by feeding the world’s current addiction to coal, oil and natural gas. They profit from having people and politicians treat used nuclear fuel as a scary waste product. They use that fear to help constipate the industry, suppressing competition that reduces prices, profits and sales volume.
Pushers cannot let their customers off the hook so easily and will do everything they can to scare them into further dependence. Using a convenient, but largely false argument – a big lie – would not budge their moral compass.
If you want to learn more, I suggest using Google Books and searching on the term “plutonium economy”. You might want to do it from a library computer so that you can go find the references and do some heavy political science and history reading. It really is a fascinating topic. (I swear.)