America’s dangerous failed nuclear recycling program

Failed Nuclear Weapons Recycling Program Could Put Us All in Danger io9, Mark Strauss, 7 June 14, Some government screw-ups are so epic that they require decades of effort. Such was the case for the recently cancelled plan to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel. Not only did the U.S. waste $4 billion dollars, it increased the likelihood that terrorists could obtain bomb-making materials.

It sounded like a good idea at the beginning. Let’s turn megatons into megawatts!

In 2000, the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA). Each country pledged to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium from their nuclear weapons programs. U.S. nuclear weapons contain less than four kilograms of plutonium, so the combined total of 68 metric tons is enough for some 17,000 nuclear weapons. Disposing of this plutonium would make it more difficult to reverse U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons reductions and would prevent terrorists from gaining access to the material.

The United States settled on a plan to convert most of its surplus plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. A massive reprocessing plant would be built at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which, during the Cold War, had refined nuclear material for deployment in warheads. Now, the site would have a new mission: creating nuclear fuel from a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxide, otherwise known as mixed oxide fuel, or MOX. Although nuclear power plants in the U.S. use fuel made from low-enriched uranium (LEU), other countries had demonstrated that MOX was a viable alternative.

Instead, the final outcome was a mothballed facility and a still-increasing supply of surplus plutonium. Like I said, this isn’t your typical government boondoggle. It was twenty years in the making……….

In 1994, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed, in principle, to limit and gradually reduce the U.S. and Russian stocks of military plutonium. The question, still to be decided by the two nations, was how to get rid of it?

The National Academy of Sciences report recommended MOX as one of the least-worst options. Other countries, notably France, already had facilities for processing plutonium into MOX, so it was a proven technology. The U.S. could likely build its own MOX facility within a decade.

But the report also offered several caveats:……….

Gaining licenses and public approval could raise difficulties. The subsidy required to transform 50 tons of plutonium into spent fuel in this way (compared to the cost of producing the same electricity by the means with which it would otherwise be produced) would probably fall in the range from a few hundred million to a few billion dollars, depending on assumptions and on the specific approach chosen.

There were other costs—and risks—to consider. Here’s the problem with MOX: the plutonium isn’t really “gone” until it’s been irradiated in a nuclear power plant. Before that happens, the fuel still contains weapons-grade plutonium that can be reclaimed. The “reverse blending of plutonium with uranium would only require a modest capability for chemical processing that could be accomplished in a small-scale and easily concealable glovebox facility,” says Ed Lyman, a physicist at the Union for Concerned Scientists. Any reactor that used MOX fuel, therefore, would need to be heavily secured against intrusion and theft.

And, pursuing the MOX option could set the wrong example for other countries. As a report by the Congressional Research Service has noted:……

An alternative to MOX, also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, was “vitrification”—otherwise known as “immobilization” or “can-in-canister.” Plutonium would be blended with high-level radioactive liquid waste and added to molten glass, which would then solidify and be sealed within stainless steel cans. The cans, in turn, would be placed inside stainless steel canisters that would then be filled with yet another batch of molten, high-level radioactive waste. Eventually, the canisters would be buried at a disposal site. The plutonium—embedded within this multi-layered, radioactive Matryoshka Doll—would be, in theory, extremely difficult to recover……


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