Fourteen environmental and disarmament groups are urging Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to abandon plans to use plutonium as fuel in American nuclear power reactors.
Their Dec. 20 letter to Mrs. O'Leary came within days of the Energy Department's announcing it expects to convert plutonium from nuclear weapons into so-called MOX fuel and pay commercial power plants to dispose of it in their reactors.
"This is indicative of the growing opposition against this decision," Tom Clements of Greenpeace said Tuesday. "I believe it's only going to grow as more people find out what's happening."
Savannah River Site near Aiken could be asked to produce the MOX fuel, and Plant Vogtle in Burke County has said it's interested in "burning" plutonium. The lethal material must be eliminated as the two super powers continue to dismantle their nuclear arsenals.
But critics of the plan say using bomb materials in civilian reactors would legitimize trade of plutonium - something the federal government was trying to prevent in the first place. Instead, these critics say, the Energy Department should immobilize the plutonium in glass from which it could never be retrieved.
"We stand united in our resolve to prevent use of MOX fuel in nuclear power plants once it is demonstrated that MOX use can be avoided altogether by using direct immobilization instead," the 14 groups wrote in their letter to Mrs. O'Leary.
"The existing-reactor MOX option is also estimated to cost $1.5 billion more than the (glass immobilization) approach," they noted in reference to a federal cost estimate.
Not everybody believes fueling American reactors with bomb material is a bad idea, however.
Members of Georgia's and South Carolina's congressional delegations are among those who have applauded the Energy Department's plutonium plan.
"It's a great step forward, and a good move in the right direction," Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., said last week of the Energy Department's plan.
The Evans dentist-turned-politician toured a nuclear facility in England earlier this month in particular to see a MOX production plant there. The facility happens to be operated by British Nuclear Fuels Inc., which Oct. 1 became a major subcontractor at SRS.
"They'd be delighted to build us one, too," Dr. Norwood said of the British company.
Critics say safety and nonproliferation goals - not commercial opportunities - should be the driving force as America decides what to do with its 50 metric ton of excess plutonium.
The Energy Department should make it clear, the 14 groups wrote, "that the United States regards plutonium as a dangerous liability, not as a valuable energy source."