Originally created 01/29/97

Nuclear energy opponent attacks DOE surplus plutonium plan



WASHINGTON -- An outspoken nuclear energy opponent criticized on Tuesday the federal government's recent announcement calling for the disposal and reuse of 50 tons of surplus enriched plutonium from the nation's nuclear weapon supply.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, called the Department of Energy misinformed and naive for attempting to implement a plan that is untested.

"This plan should be taken off the table," said Dr. Makhijani, who spoke at a press conference in Washington.

Last month, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced a two-track plan to dispose of plutonium by immobilizing it in glass or using it as so-called MOX fuel in commercial nuclear power reactors.

Savannah River Site hopes to be asked both to make the glass and to convert the plutonium into fuel - missions that could bring several hundred new jobs to the Aiken Plant.

Dr. Makhijani said there are problems with DOE's proposal to turn the plutonium into fuel. The plan doesn't consider technical issues such as the difference between a nuclear reactor's plutonium - and weapons plutonium, he said.

"I don't think this is a very sound way to approach this," Dr. Makhijani said.

But a spokesman for a nuclear power plant lobbying group said the DOE plan was workable.

"One technology can be a back-up for the other," said Steve Unglesbee, of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "It doesn't put all your technological eggs in one basket."

{can trim here, if necessary}He said converting the nation's plutonium into electricity also will send a message to other countries who are trying to dispose of their nuclear materials such as Russia.

"MOX says we are serious about destroying this material," Mr. Unglesbee said.

He doesn't agree with Dr. Makhijani, who supports mixing plutonium with glass and other materials, or vitrification.

Dr. Makhijani said this process would prevent someone from stealing the material and using it for a nuclear weapon. And added this simply was the less risky approach to dealing with this situation.

"This is an insurance policy that does not make sense," he said. "If you're going to buy insurance, you don't want a risky insurance policy." But Mr. Unglesbee said Dr. Makhijani has ulterior motives for his disapproval of the plan.

"What we're hearing today is not so much an anti-plutonium disposal argument as an anti-nuclear argument," he said.