01 Nov 2001 Beating Swords into Plowshares – The 21st Century Way, by Tom Randall
President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting in Crawford, Texas, renewed pledges to make drastic reductions in nuclear weapons – Bush offering to unilaterally cut the number of U.S. warheads by up to two-thirds, Putin promising “corresponding reductions.”1 While such a reduction in nuclear weapons is an admirable goal, it would leave both countries with the need to dispose of tens of thousands of pounds of weapons-grade plutonium.2
What can we do with it? In this age of terrorism, how can we keep it from falling into the wrong hands?
If Congress acts, we could use the nuclear material in the warheads as part of the means of providing nearly limitless, virtually pollution-free electricity.
We could also consume the waste from current nuclear reactors and cut the length of time that nuclear waste needs to be isolated from tens of thousands of years to just a few hundred. As a result we could, in time, transfer much of the natural gas now used for electricity generation to other uses – such as powering cars and trucks, thus reducing our dependency upon foreign oil.
In short, our desire to convert decommissioned plutonium warheads and nuclear waste to electricity could and should provide the impetus for building revolutionary new integral fast reactors (IFRs) – the embodiment of the technology that can make all this possible.
In the early 1990s, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory, outside of Chicago, and at “Argonne West” in Idaho, were within just a few years of completing research leading to the design of full-scale IFR power plants. In fact, they had a small pilot plant up and running, performing safety functions flawlessly when the project was abruptly halted in 1994 by the then-Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary.
The project shutdown was based on the unfounded fear that the IFR and fuel reprocessing, which contributes significantly to its efficiency, would produce a market in weapons-grade plutonium. But this is false.
The IFR would use a process known as pyroprocessing to convert plutonium and nuclear waste into useable fuel. Further, it allows for the repeated reuse of that fuel. It cannot, however, create plutonium of the chemical purity needed for weapons. The process, known as PUREX, that is used by today’s generation of reactors can do so, however.
An additional benefit of building integral fast reactors is that IFRs would make a major contribution to the resolution of the sticky political and safety issues surrounding the management of nuclear waste. Currently, this waste is stored near nuclear reactors across the country, much of it underwater in storage pools. The storage pools might be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. While dangers from such an attack are minimal, this waste would arguably be safer deep underground in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, the completion of which has been delayed for years because of political controversy.
Much of this controversy is due to the fact that the current generation of nuclear power plants produces waste that must be stored for 20,000 years – longer than recorded history. However, if integral fast reactors were built, the waste from the IFRs would need to be isolated for only 300 to 500 years. This is, admittedly, a substantial time, but far less than 20,000 years, making the requirements for the Yucca Mountain facility much less demanding.
When Secretary O’Leary killed the IFR project in 1994, the laboratories were only $200-300 million dollars and two to three years from being ready to build an operational prototype of a commercial IFR plant. However, since 1994, Congress has apparently failed to see the great significance of this technology and has only dribbled out funds for work on it – even though the total amount needed for the project’s completion is relative chicken feed in federal budget terms.
It is time to change that and move ahead with all possible speed on the Integral Fast Reactor and pyroprocessing.
The benefits of IFRs in an energy-starved, pollution averse, terrorist-infested, post-cold war world could be dramatic.
Tom Randall is Director of The National Center’s John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs.
1 As reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune and on the Fox News Channel on November 14, 2001.
2 Interview with nuclear physicist George Stanford, Ph.D., November 15, 2001. The information about integral fast reactors, pyroprocessing, the conversion of nuclear warheads into fuel and the disposal of nuclear waste in this paper come from this interview, as well as from National Center for Public Policy Research National Policy Analysis #374, “Reprocessing, Waste and Bombs: Good News on the Energy Front,” by Gerald Marsh and George Stanford, available on the Internet at https://nationalcenter.org/NPA374.html.