Trashing the Element from Hell,” an article in the July edition of Scientific American, alludes to “experts” who are recommending alternate approaches to mixed oxide for the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium.
The article does not explain why the United States is engaging in the MOX fuel program and why we are making this trip, and where we have been on this journey. These are important aspects of the issue.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration made treaty obligations with the Russians in 1993 to convert weapons of mass destruction into energy for peaceful purposes – an initiative dubbed “Megatons to Megawatts.” As a result of that initiative, high-enriched uranium, which had been in Soviet weapons targeting the United States and our allies, was sold to the United States and blended down to make low-enriched uranium for fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors.
FULLY 50 PERCENT of our nuclear-generated electricity in recent years, or 10 percent of our total electricity generation in the United States, derives from former Soviet weapons. Negotiations between the United States and Russia as to the fate of plutonium-based weapons material resulted in 2000 in a plutonium management and disposition agreement, in which each country committed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.
The Russians were aware that many approaches that might environmentally immobilize the plutonium in some relatively intractable matrix, such as a ceramic puck, still left the plutonium in a form that could be processed and recovered for use in weapons if we ever changed our minds. All options for disposition of plutonium were multibillion-dollar projects, and in the end all options but one led to very expensive nonproliferation safeguards and security measures ad infinitum.
That one option was MOX. Exposure of the plutonium in a nuclear reactor fuel cycle changes the nature of the plutonium in such a way as to render it unattractive for use in a nuclear weapon.
In addition to the obvious benefit of reducing the attractiveness of the plutonium for weapons, thereby reducing concerns over proliferation and many of the costs associated with safeguards and accountability, MOX provides additional benefits. Thirty-four metric tons of plutonium can provide electricity for a million homes for 50 years, a product worth tens of billions of dollars.
NO OTHER OPTION has any cost recovery component, so MOX embodies the benefits of disposing of the weapons threat, creating clean electricity for 50 million homes, recovering at least partial cost of the program, eliminating the permanent costs of safeguarding the material, and representing an accomplishment achieved by two nations who were near nuclear war – allowing them to step back from the brink of unthinkable destruction and to instead use those instruments of war for peaceful purposes.
We made the right choice. We are more than halfway to completion of the MOX facility, and changing course would be much more expensive than staying the course. We need to demonstrate our commitment to our treaty obligations and bask in the comfort of knowing that mankind can make decisions of this importance and actually pull them off.
You see, the only things from hell are the uses that man chooses for the elements.
(The writer is executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C. He formerly chaired the Technical Advisory Panel to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Plutonium Focus Area.)