Nuclear News, February, 1977
The author presses for an expeditious development of fuel cycle technology, especially with respect to reprocessing and the recovery of a precious energy resource, plutonium. The present U.S. posture concerning reprocessing is seriously questioned.
Plutonium is an energy resource
Plutonium has become a household word, but all too often those discussing it lose sight of its primary attribute: as an energy resource. It is, in fact, the most abundant energy resource on Earth that we have the technical and productive capability to use now. Since a pound of plutonium is equivalent to more than 5000 barrels of oil, and since we have "known reserves" of plutonium (uranium-238 convertible into plutonium) of about 250,000 tons already mined, simple arithmetic reveals that this energy resource is virtually inexhaustible. We already have the equivalent of some 2.5 trillion barrels of oil "in storage." Therefore, availability or depletion of this energy resource is not a concern. There are other concerns, however, and these will be discussed, but primarily within the perspective of plutonium as an energy resource.
Proliferation of nuclear weapons
It has been the general policy of the nuclear weapon states (and certain other nations--notably, Canada and Germany--who are strong in nuclear technology, but are not weapon states) to prevent non-weapon states from developing a weapons capability, while at the same time satisfying the demand for nuclear power production. This conflicting objective has produced some major policy decisions and come confused thinking.
There are three major elements of the nuclear power industry that relate to the possible production of nuclear weapons: enrichment, plutonium production in the course of nuclear power plant operation, and spent fuel reprocessing.
On the question of enrichment, the weapon states have controlled weapons proliferation by providing low-enrichment power reactor fuel to non-weapon states. Obviously, this arrangement makes the non-weapon states dependent upon the weapon states for the fuel for their power reactors- a situation with which they are not overjoyed. In fact, some non-weapon states are insisting on developing their own enrichment capabilities to be independent. To offset these concerns, the weapon states are offering very strong guarantees of reliable and fairly priced enriching services.
On the second point, although the operation of a nuclear power plant produces plutonium, it is, of course, inaccessible within the fuel and mixed with the highly radioactive fission products. It should be stressed, therefore, that although a non-weapon state is producing plutonium and has it in its possession, it is not directly available for use in weapons.
As for the separation of plutonium from spent fuel, it has been demonstrated that the extraction of these materials requires reprocessing of the fuel in a very complex facility. To avoid the risk of use of extracted plutonium for weapons use, the weapon states have provided, or offered to provide reprocessing services to non-weapon states, thereby removing the need and incentive for construction of reprocessing facilities in those states. This arrangement, of course, also makes the non-weapon states dependent upon the weapon states for a service.
Within this framework, the weapon states are attempting to meet the objectives of providing nuclear power to non-weapon states without providing them a weapons capability. Commitments to provide enriching and processing facilities to non-weapon states have been drastically reduced, and controls on other types of reactors and experimental facilities have been strengthened. (It is often overlooked that there are easier and better ways to produce plutonium for weapons, including experimental and research facilities.) Within this rather logical and realistic framework, the United States, through statements by Mr. Carter and Mr. Ford and actions by the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration, has brought confusion and illogic. The United States has declared a moratorium on reprocessing and plutonium recycle. This is conceived to demonstrate some kind of “moral leadership” by, in effect, telling the non-weapons states, “We don’t want you to process power reactor fuel because we don’t want you to build bombs, and to demonstrate our sincerity, we won’t process power reactor fuel either.” Before anyone is overcome with emotion, it should be remembered that the United States uses other facilities for producing weapons plutonium. We are not reducing our capability to use plutonium for bombs; we are reducing our capability to use plutonium as an energy resource. It is logical to expect the non-weapon states to ask, “Why should the United States buy-back our irradiated fuel if they are not going to process it to extract and use the energy value of the plutonium (and uranium-235)?” If the United States does not reprocess irradiated fuel, it has no value, and there is no economic basis for buying it. Under these circumstances, “buy-back” commitments must be considered a subsidy to non-weapon states exposing them to the vagaries of our political system. I believe that our policy is confused and counterproductive, that it will not discourage non-weapon states from desiring processing capability, and that it will persuade them to strive to become self-reliant and self-sufficient in nuclear power.
I recommend that the United States reverse its policy and encourage processing and plutonium recycle by all weapon states. The weapon states, in fact, should maximize their use of plutonium to make uranium-235 available for nuclear power in non-weapon states. I believe that the weapon states should accept the increased complexity and difficulty of using plutonium as their nuclear energy resource while allowing the non-weapon-states to use uranium-u35 (in low-enrichment reactors). Giving the non-weapon states the easier cycle is a reasonable price for the weapon states to pay for weapons control. Further, I believe that the weapon states should institute plutonium use and rapidly as possible even at some financial sacrifice. If some weapon states are better prepared to make this adjustment, the others could supply (or loan) plutonium to them for this use. The French might advance their schedule for breeders if we offered them our plutonium since their schedule is predicated on the availability of plutonium from their reactors. The Russians might be in a better position than we are to use plutonium. It should be remembered that plutonium produced in a power reactor has no use to a weapon state except as an energy resource.
Although the control of nuclear weapons proliferation can be considered and evaluated in a rational manner, it has been confused and diffused by extraneous issues related to proliferation as well as other aspects of plutonium use. I will discuss these to put them in some perspective.
The legitimate concern about weapons proliferation on the international level was very much confused by the “homemade bomb syndrome” that gained considerable notoriety in the United States because it captured the fancy of the media. The TV networks created instant experts and instant heroes, and of such stuff is TV made. The general scenario involved breaking into a nuclear power plant, stealing the irradiated fuel, separating the plutonium, and building bombs in basements. It was a simple exercise for college students, and for a while it appeared to be a suitable topic for thesis papers (in the School of Journalism). Although this nonsense has been pretty well discounted now, it diverted scientific and administrative talent from real problems and added to the confusion of the general public.
The Administrator’s Decision
One of the most imaginative and innovative developments of 1976 was the creation of the “Administrator’s Decision”- scheduled to be made in 1986. At that time the Administrator of ERDA (whoever he may be) will decide whether or not plutonium is to be recycled; except this decision was made at least 15 years ago. When Congress authorizes a post office, it is implicit that mail will be handled. When Congress authorizes a dam, it is implicit that water will be impounded. When Congress authorized the development of the breeder, it was implicit that plutonium would be recycled; that is the kind of breeder that was authorized.
With the penchant that Congress has for holding hearings and conducting investigations, it is indeed amazing that Congress has not chosen to investigate the action of a federal agency that has as its purpose to take 10 years to decide whether or not the United States will follow the past and continuing directives of Congress. Is it any wonder that the citizens of the United States are confused (and the leaders of other countries are concerned) about what is substituting for U.S. energy policy?
The introduction of this new concept, however, presents almost unlimited bureaucratic opportunities-i.e., for goals to be set, milestones to be established, progress reports to be written, hearings to be held, ad infinitum. Once this process of review and administration gains momentum, even the General Accounting office may forget that this decision was made by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Congress 15 years ago, and they will report to the Congress on progress toward the “objective”: achieving the Administrator’s Decision.
In view of this confusion, perhaps it is understandable that discussions about plutonium tend to emphasize aspects other than energy resource considerations. Since the Administrator is also exposed to these non-energy considerations, discussion of them may be warranted.
The health issue
We heard that plutonium is the most hazardous substance known to man; that one pound can kill 9 billion people; and that a spec of plutonium can cause lung cancer. It is true that plutonium is a hazardous substance, but not to the extent publicized. More than 10,000 pounds of plutonium have been released into the atmosphere via the weapons programs of the weapon states. Thousands of people have worked with plutonium, primarily in the weapons programs, but in spite of all of this exposure, there is no known instance of a plutonium fatality or a plutonium-caused lung cancer among either the general public or plutonium workers. There are more commonly available hazards, such as botulism toxin and cyanide compounds. The first is readily available and more toxic than plutonium. The second so not decompose and, therefore, are with us forever (an even longer half life than plutonium).
We have heard that the use of plutonium will cause the loss of our liberties and bring on a garrison state. The garrison state hypothesis developed about the time of the homemade bomb syndrome and was advanced as the requirement to prevent the postulated terrorist from entering the nuclear power station, stealing the irradiated fuel, separating the plutonium, and building a bomb. That scenario has lost much of its popularity, but we should recognize that there will be controls enforced at facilities that manufacture or use plutonium. In this respect, it is worth noting that plutonium and other radioactive materials are easily detectable in extremely small quantities-which make them safer in many respects than toxic chemicals, which are more difficult to detect.
Experience has shown that many hazardous chemicals can be “carried home” by workers to members of their families and associated via their work clothing and persons. The use of plutonium need not infringe on our liberties and will not require a garrison state any more than existing airport controls and toxic materials controls do now. The garrison state syndrome is just another “straw man” intended to confuse the public and divert them from an understanding of plutonium’s role as an energy resource.
The morality issue
One of the most curious characteristics attributed to plutonium is that it is “immoral.” This claimed immorality derives from its long half-life and the requirement that any quantities that are collected with waste materials must be stored under controlled conditions for an extremely long period of time. First, it should be emphasized that in any logical energy program, the amount of plutonium stored will be as small as possible since it is an energy resource to use, not stored. Secondly, the immoral aspect is usually defined in terms of the legacy we leave to our descendants-the perpetual storage of this material. I submit that there are other legacies that must also be evaluated in a total frame-work of morality. There is the morality of depleting our nonrenewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal, while we have an almost infinite resource available to us; We are depleting these resources because it is easier to use oil, gas and possibly coal (or at least the public has been let to believe it is easier). Our descendants may have a different view of our morality when they evaluate our decision to take the easier course. It should also be noted that this moral judgment will be made in the not too distant future since children already born will live to see the essential depletion of our oil and gas reserves and probably a significant reduction of our coal reserves.
As the supplies of oil and gas diminish and the competition for those supplies becomes more intense, the actions of people and governments may become quite immoral. People have fought for less than what oil and gas means to the industrial world today. If we contribute to that kind of world by passing up our plutonium energy resource, we will not need to wait for history to judge our morality.
Finally, we come to the matter that receives least attention: the magnitude, the availability, and the applicability of plutonium as an energy resource. Exact figures are not available, but it can be estimated that at least 250,000 tons of U238 are now stockpiled in the United States as a by- product. Stored at our diffusion plants, this stockpile is essentially worthless, except as a raw material from which to produce plutonium. If it is used in breeders, which is the logical way to use this material, it has the energy equivalent of about a trillion tons of coal and can produce all of our electricity for hundreds of years. To place this matter in clear perspective, the United States has mined, refined, and stored drums of energy equivalent of more than 1000 years of coal mined at 1976 rates or more than 400 years of oil at the 1976 rate of consumption. Not only does this resource represent an opportunity to conserve our fossil resources but the environmental impact of making energy resources available can be controlled; the environmental impact of mining, refining, and converting the uranium has already occurred.
Similar quantities of U-238 are stored in the other industrial countries that have enriching facilities, and additional quantities are being produced every day in the United States and in those countries. The un-mined uranium reserves are many times as large-which means we have a “plutonium reserve” sufficient to meet the world’s electricity requirements for thousands of years.
The only real reason for not using plutonium today is that it isn’t easy. I don’t think that is a good enough reason for depleting our limited resources of oil, gas, and coal, while we stockpile U-238.
Many people seem to believe that the future course of United States energy strategy is uncertain. On the contrary, I fear that it is quite clear and therefore feel constrained to make the following predictions for the next 10 years:
- The United States will continue to increase petroleum imports.
- OPEC and other exporters of petroleum will continue to increase the price of petroleum (in spite of the condemnation of U.S. leaders and other importers).
- The United States will continue to stockpile U-238 at a rate equivalent in energy to more than 100 billion barrels of oil per year. (The United States uses about 6 billion barrels per year).
- The Unites States will continue to apply wishful thinking rather than reality in its need to find alternate energy sources to replace oil and gas.
- The Congress, moralists, activists, and other “leaders” will continue to pontificate and mislead the public. They will also avoid their responsibilities while they lay the ground-work for blaming others for the energy disaster that is coming.
- The United States will “wring its hands” in anguish over the difficulty of using nuclear energy while it awaits the “Administrator’s Decision.”
- The Administrator’s Decision will not be needed in 1986. If the United States permits another 10 years of nuclear power indecision and inaction, the situation will be considerably worse than it is today, and beyond salvaging.
I will close with a question that has been occurring to me with increasing frequency as I observe the worsening energy leadership dilemma of the United States: “Who will the historians say was playing the fiddle?”
Reprinted with permission or the American Nuclear Society