Dr. Strangelove's Revenge

The spy has come in from the cold, and Russia has agreed to lay down its nuclear weapons alongside the US. But one leftover from the cold war -- surplus weapons plutonium -- is, in some minds, a possible threat in the hands of our new enemies -- middle eastern terrorists.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has a novel idea: to "recycle" that plutonium into energy with which we can heat and light our homes and run our businesses. Plutonium can be purified and combined with a greater quantity of uranium oxide to produce mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX, which can, in turn, be used as nuclear reactor fuel. The DOE has signed a contract with a nuclear conglomerate, Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster, to produce MOX at the Savannah River Site (SRS) outside Augusta, South Carolina. Production is scheduled to begin in 2007, and, in the meantime, the project is up for public comment.

Will MOX production neutralize our weapons grade plutonium, making this a safer world, or will transporting plutonium to South Carolina and manufacturing MOX pose a danger to southeastern communities and a possible invitation to terrorists?

Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster say that MOX can be safely produced and transported, but environmentalists and others who oppose nuclear power and weapons have heated objections to the MOX program which has yet to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). MOX opponents say there's a safer way to neutralize the threat posed by leftover plutonium. It could be immobilized in canisters and stored in the Yucca Mountains. To do otherwise perpetuates the dangerous use of nuclear energy and even leads to future bomb production, some say. The DOE developed a detailed program for immobilizing at least some of our surplus weapons plutonium, then further angered environmentalists by declaring, at the beginning of this year, that all of it would be turned over for MOX production instead.

"Just spend the money and immobilize this stuff," said Jody Lanier at a recent NRC-hosted meeting in Savannah, Georgia, 90 miles southeast of the Savannah River Site. Lanier said it took him five hours to drive from Savannah to nearby Pembroke -- around 30 miles away -- during the hurricane Floyd scare a few years ago.

"Where will we go if there's a terrorist attack?" asked Lanier. "They're trying to shove a giant poo poo platter down our throat."

Truckin' plutonium

The transportation of plutonium to and from the Savannah River Site has been a colorful issue since South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges vowed to lie in the road, if necessary, to keep plutonium shipments out of his state.

The plutonium will make four trips altogether. First, the raw surplus material will be trucked in to the Savannah River Site. Most of it will probably come from weapons production sites in Colorado and Texas, according to Sara Barczak who represents Georgians for Clean Energy. When it has been converted to MOX, the fuel will then be transported to two nuclear stations in the southeast where it will serve as fuel.

After that, according to Barczak, the spent fuel byproduct has to go back to the Savannah River Site before it makes its final journey to a "geologic repository" where it will remain in, hopefully, accident-proof canisters.

Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster have distributed a reassuringly detailed fact sheet about phase two of the transportation process: the transport of MOX fuel to the nuclear reactors. MOX packages are designed to sustain fire, cold, water immersion and a 30-foot drop, and they will be transported in tractor-trailers under armed guard.

But it's the first phase of the journey -- the transport of unprocessed weapons plutonium to the Savannah River Site in the first place -- that's of more concern to Barczak. "The plutonium oxide at Rocky Flats [the weapons production facility in Colorado] is highly dispersible in air," says Barczak. "It's the good stuff. From a terrorist perspective, you've got the form that they want on the roadways."

When asked about the transport of plutonium to the Savannah River Site, Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster Communications Coordinator Todd Kaish said the DOE would be handling all the transportation for this project.

Getting information from the Department of Energy can be a challenge. The department website lists a "nuclear safety hotline" which you might think would directly address the issue. Upon dialing it, however, you get a recorded advertisement for "the talk line" which promises "exciting people nationwide" in a breathy, excited voice.

Is the southeast the staging area for a nuclear experiment?

Is the MOX program a safe, well-researched enterprise or an experiment being foisted on the southeastern United States which have been slow to stick up for their rights to clean air and water?

Making MOX out of warhead plutonium was first proposed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1994. The academy wrote that to reduce the "clear and present danger" posed by left over bomb plutonium, it should be rendered as harmless as plutonium that's been run through a reactor and turned into energy. The "spent fuel standard," the academy called it. Since then, however, other scientists have wondered if producing MOX might not present a clear and present danger in and of itself.

Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster say they can safely produce the new fuel in a facility which will be modeled on MOX producing plants in France. COGEMA, one of the partners in the enterprise, is the French firm that, along with BELGONUCLEAIRE, already operates three industrial MOX plants in France and Belgium where the majority of the world's MOX fuel is produced.

Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster represent the production of MOX as something that is already being routinely done in France and Belgium -- and at a much bigger scale than that proposed in the US. MOX plants in France and Belgium produce fuel for 30 nuclear units in contrast to the modest two proposed by America's DOE.

But MOX opponents say that's a misleading representation. France and Belgium are, indeed, producing MOX, but not from the weapons-grade plutonium that's slated for use at the SRS. The American project is experimental, says Barczak.

"They [the French] make it from commercial plutonium," she explains. "Every nuclear power plant creates plutonium, so they take those spent fuel rods and reprocess them and extract the plutonium and make it into MOX. The difference is the commercial grade is different from the weapons grade plutonium. It's not the same thing. It's new," says Barczak.

Before it can become a MOX ingredient, all plutonium -- both commercial and weapons-grade -- has to be purified. Weapons plutonium, however, contains a troublesome chemical called gallium, according to Arjun Markhijani and Anita Seth of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

"Gallium complicates the MOX fuel fabrication process and therefore it must be almost completely removed from weapons grade plutonium prior to fuel fabrication," they write in an essay titled "The Use of Weapons Plutonium as Reactor Fuel."

Can you call it recycling?

A program which reshapes a dangerous white elephant into something we all need -- energy -- is bound to look attractive to many Americans. Our frontier heritage cries out to be inventive with resources and not to waste anything that has some residual value.

But producing MOX is not a simple case of "waste not, want not." MOX production generates a tremendous amount of waste at several stages, according to MOX fabrication opponents.

Purifying plutonium, alone, "involves huge liquid waste discharges," Markhijani and Seth write. They refer to a process called "aqueous polishing" which is currently used to purify commercial plutonium. Plutonium could be purified using a dry process, which, Markhijani and Seth imply, would be cleaner, but "dry processes . . . have not yet been developed beyond the laboratory scale." Such a process could be developed in five years, Markhijani and Seth write, which would make it available in time for MOX production, currently scheduled to begin in 2007. But Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster have no intention of using a dry process, according to Communications Coordinator Todd Kaish.

"The aqueous polishing process is the process that we will be using at the MOX facility," says Kaish.

So making MOX will involve much chemical waste. And, because producing nuclear energy always involves radioactive waste, MOX will create some more waste at the reactor end, when it is converted into electricity.

The resulting spent fuel "will be stored in a geologic repository," according to Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster. In other words, surplus plutonium ends up in storage in the Yucca mountains one way or another. It could be immobilized and go straight there without making any detours, or, as is proposed by DOE, it can generate tons of waste along the way.

Someone Else's Backyard

MOX is scheduled for production at the notorious Savannah River Site, called a Superfund site by clean energy activists.

"It is the site that has the most radioactivity of any DOE site in the country," Barczak says. "And it has the second largest volume."

At the scoping meeting in Savannah, Lanier said the MOX program would only add to "the overburdened waste stream that's already at Savannah River Site."

"We've got all this other waste from over 50 years in leaky tanks," said Lanier who voiced his concern that contamination from SRS could encroach on the Floridan aquifer, the region's principle source of drinking water.

Lanier was far from alone in this opinion. Green Party leader William Pleasant said the SRS has "been run sloppily for 50 years." Fred Nadelman of Citizens for Clean Air and Water said SRS should be "cleaned up, shut down, and turned into a park." Georgia State Representative Regina Thomas said that the SRS is the site of too much contamination already.

In fact, the tone of citizen input at the Savannah meeting -- 90 miles downstream and downwind of the SRS -- was overwhelmingly opposed to any further production at the Savannah River Site in general, and the MOX program in particular.

But opposition to SRS projects is largely tempered by support in Aiken and Augusta, two South Carolina cities near the site. Aiken and Augusta derive jobs and economic opportunity from SRS. The area's leading newspaper, "The Augusta Chronicle," for the most part covers SRS activity with bullish enthusiasm.

Ironically, SRS will receive much of its MOX-ready plutonium from Colorado's Rocky Flats, a weapons production facility that has been effectively closed down by unfavorable public opinion. Colorado didn't want that plutonium in its backyard, so the surplus bomb fuel is headed for the southeast which has become the path of least resistance for today's nuclear production.

A further health and safety risk?

Nuclear Control Institute President Edwin Lyman worries that using MOX fuel in nuclear reactors poses a danger that goes beyond the ordinary risks of nuclear energy.

"The additional public health and environmental risks posed by the substitution of MOX fuel for uranium fuel in light-water reactors have been well-documented, but have not been adequately considered in the DOE NEPA documentation to date," he writes in a memo to NRC.´"Furthermore, new information has recently come to light that suggests that the additional risks posed by MOX fuel compared to uranium fuel are even greater than previously assumed."

Savannah residents are concerned about possible health risks associated with MOX production at the Savannah River Site. State Representatives Lester Jackson and Regina Thomas both voiced concern about health impacts at the scoping meeting. Jackson said the Savannah area has a higher rate of cancer and asked what kind of study was being done to measure the possible relationship between that statistic and SRS activity.

Ernie Chapman, from Aiken, cited a state-funded study that shows counties immediately facing the SRS have lower cancer rates than the state average. But neither Jackson nor Thomas seemed convinced that there's no added risk to the Savannah area.

Thomas said she was "very disappointed that costs are more important than human lives."

Jackson also asked whether there might be a link between SRS activity and Savannah's high infant mortality rate to which there was no specific response.

"Cancer isn't necessarily the best indicator of a problem," says Barczak who thinks the infant mortality question needs further study. "We tend not to study those registries. We don't have the infrastructure there where we're doing that nationally," she says.

A Welfare Program for the Nuclear Industry?

"Immobilization of plutonium is demonstrably cheaper, faster, safer more secure and less of an environmental threat than the MOX approach," writes Lyman.Y´"The sole obstacle to implementation of this clearly superior technology is the political opposition of entrenched nuclear bureaucrats in both the U.S. and Russia, who favor reactor options on ideological grounds, no matter what the cost and risk."

Lyman is but one MOX opponent who questions whether DOE sincerely consulted the public's best interests in opting for MOX production instead of immobilization. Because federal funds will be used to build the new MOX facility, many environmentalists describe the MOX program as a federal subsidy of the nuclear industry.

At the recent scoping meeting in Savannah, Green Party leader William Pleasant described the MOX proposal as "a welfare program for Duke Power" which owns the nuclear stations where MOX will be shipped and used. Lanier, too, described the project as " a big waste of tax dollars."

Other MOX opponents, including Fred Nadelman and Judy Jennings, a local Sierra Club leader, indicated that the MOX program constitutes a handout to the nuclear power business.

The DOE's proposal to burn MOX at only two reactor sites looks modest in comparison to the number of reactors using MOX in Europe. But will that be the end of MOX production in the US, or will the MOX program branch out and serve other nuclear stations?

Lyman writes that much more MOX has been scheduled for production than can be burned at the McGuire and Catawba nuclear stations slated to receive it.
"NRC should realize that at least three additional reactors will be required to dispose of 3.5 MT of plutonium per year . . . rather than the two reactors that DOE has said would be sufficient," Lyman writes. "NRC must also consider the distinct possibility that DOE will not be able to locate any additional reactors willing to accept the costs and risks of MOX use."

But nowhere in its recently published fact sheets do Duke COGEMA Stone and Webster promise that MOX use will stay confined to those two stations.

To muddy matters some more, the DOE recently announced that the Savannah River Site is in the running for yet another project, this one a "modern pit facility," which Barczak interprets to mean "a site that could produce/manufacture new plutonium pits for nuclear bombs."

"Many have felt all along that bringing the plutonium to South Carolina to make MOX was just a guise to get it here to do what the DOE really wants...to make new nuclear bombs," she says.

Reporter Lynn Hamilton is the publisher of the Tybee News and an occasional contributor to Alternet.org.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.