The military-industrial complex is at it again as spinmeister. This time, the idea is to turn “swords into plowshares” by using plutonium from nuclear warheads to generate electric power.
The plan involves using weapons-grade plutonium to manufacture fuel for commercial reactors. The fuel — called MOX, for “mixed-oxide” fuel — combines highly enriched uranium with plutonium reprocessed from dismantled nuclear weapons.
The Southeastern United States would be the region most directly affected by a plan to use MOX. The Savannah River site in South Carolina has been chosen to reprocess the plutonium and fabricate MOX fuel. In North and South Carolina, Duke Energy has been given the go-ahead by the Department of Energy to begin planning for the use of weapons-grade plutonium fuel.
The Catawba Nuclear Station near Rock Hill, S.C., and the McGuire Plant near Charlotte, N.C., have been chosen for the MOX-fueled nuclear reactors. Trucks would transport plutonium to the Savannah River site from DOE sites in the West, using our interstate highways. Shipments of the processed fuel to the reactor sites would move the same way.
At first glance, using our stockpiled plutonium in this way doesn’t necessarily seem so bad … if you don’t mind nuclear power — and plenty of folks don’t. After all, we have to do something with all that stuff, don’t we? Well, yes. But MOX fuel in our reactors would be a terrible mistake. Here’s why:
• Present reactors were never designed with plutonium fuel in mind. Extensive, costly and untested revamping would be necessary.
• The MOX fuel generates more high-energy particles than the currently used uranium fuel. This will accelerate the rate of damage to key reactor parts. The containment vessel, for example, will become brittle sooner and be less reliable for confining radiation in an emergency.
• Because plutonium-laced fuel generates more high-energy neutrons, the rate of the nuclear reaction will increase and become harder to control. Conventional control rods cannot be inserted fast enough when reactions proceed in nanoseconds. This makes a runaway nuclear “event” more likely.
• A recent study by the Nuclear Control Institute finds that an accident at a reactor fueled with MOX could cause 25 to 30 percent more fatal cancers than an identical incident at a uranium-fueled reactor. This is because MOX fuel will create more of the dangerous transuranic elements.
• Processing weapons plutonium into MOX would create huge amounts of high-level nuclear waste, for which we have no means of safe, long-term storage. Also, this is an inherently dirty process, and further contamination of the Savannah River site and its workers would be inevitable.
• To produce MOX, plutonium will be transported by truck to the Savannah River site in Aiken, S.C., for reprocessing, and the finished fuel then trucked to selected reactor sites. This presents serious security risks regarding the possibility of theft or terrorist activity, because the plutonium in MOX can be extracted for use in nuclear weapons. There is also the potential for accidents en route. The transport canisters now in use have been called “mobile Chernobyls,” because they leak radiation and cannot be relied on to stay intact in the event of a major collision.
• Interestingly, MOX will not “use up” our stockpiled plutonium after all. Though a small amount will be expended in energy production, plutonium will also be created in the process –along with a host of other toxic elements — when the uranium in the mixed-oxide fuel is converted to new plutonium.
• Plutonium disposition is closely linked to international efforts to control the spread of nuclear arms. A U.S. plutonium-fuel program would undercut a decades-long policy aimed at restricting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It would signal U.S. approval of plutonium reprocessing, and support plutonium production in Russia as well. A MOX program could lead to world trade in plutonium, with greatly increased risks to international security, public health and the environment.
You may be wondering why Duke Energy, known as a responsible member of the utility industry, would even consider using MOX fuel in its facilities. It’s the same old answer: money. The DOE is planning to pay them, with your tax dollars, to use plutonium fuel. Using our money to prop up aging nuclear facilities is a form of corporate welfare that works against everyone’s best interests.
Of course, we still face the question of surplus plutonium disposition. What are we going to do with the stuff, to keep it safely contained and unavailable for the next 240 million years? The most promising alternative is immobilization, in which plutonium is embedded in canisters filled with molten glass containing high-level nuclear waste.
This would isolate the plutonium from the environment and create a radioactive barrier that would make the plutonium much less vulnerable to theft or diversion.
If you would like to help stop the threat of plutonium fuel in our commercial power reactors, contact our senators, Jesse Helms and John Edwards, and our Congressional representative, Charles Taylor (all through the U.S. Capital switchboard, (202) 224-3121). Urge them to support funding for more immobilization and to block funding for MOX. Let them know that you do not want our public health, environment and national security placed at risk.
Also contact Duke Energy, especially if you are a stockholder, to protest this dangerous MOX proposal. The contact person is Cathy Roche, Director of External Relations, P.O. Box 1244, Charlotte, NC 28202. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
To learn more about MOX, contact the Nuclear Information and Resource Center. We are fortunate that NIRS Southeast Coordinator Mary Fox Olsen has moved her office to Asheville. Mary is a nationally known expert on nuclear issues, especially MOX, and you can reach her at (828) 251-2060 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The national-office Web site address is www.nirs.org.
The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League also has an excellent Web site (www.bredl.org) where you can learn more about the international NIX-MOX coalition.
Sept. 28 has been set aside as the international day of MOX protest. Clark and others will distribute literature about the dangers of MOX on that day, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Earth Fare.
[Brita L. Clark, president of the Asheville branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, also serves on the North Carolina Peace Action State Board.]