Plutonium proposal poses new threat to South Carolina


*DOE plans to reverse previous policy not to reprocess plutonium and to begin planning experimental conversion of nuclear warhead pits (plutonium) for use as fuel in commercial nuclear power reactors. The move alarms antinuclear activists in South Carolina, who have organized a new group called the Southern Coalition Opposing Plutonium Energy, Economics, and in the Environment (SCOPE) to fight the plan.

The only public hearing on the issue was held in North Augusta in August, where much of the city's infrastructure is dependent on the 14,000 employees of SRS, who were given the day off to appear at the hearing.

The MOX idea didn't fly at a DOE site in Hartford, Wa., where it was successfully defeated by a large anti-MOX group. But the proposal has met little opposition from either citizens or politicians in South Carolina, which baffles (and relieves) the rest of the country with its continued habit of welcoming radioactive waste.

Plutonium reprocessing is a dangerous and dirty process, and will only add to the tons of untreated radioactive waste accumulating at SRS. With no permanent repository at hand, we may become the de facto permanent site, even though the area has long been considered geologically and environmentally unsuited for such storage.

There are many reasons that MOX (mixed oxide = plutonium) fuel is a bad idea. It will:

  1. cost more taxpayer money (definitely millions, maybe billions);
  2. involve more steps where plutonium will be vulnerable to diversion and theft;
  3. involve more steps where high-level waste will be generated;
  4. require a greater level of purity of the plutonium and, therefore, more processing;
  5. result in more waste from processing, and more worker exposures;
  6. require a redesign of power reactors that were not designed for plutonium fuel;
  7. lower the already thin margin of safety in aging power reactors, significantly increasing a major reactor accident; and
  8. remove any credible basis for the United States to criticize hybrid military/energy programs in other countries.

MOX fuel does NOT get rid of plutonium. Reactors do not burn anything, they split atoms. As plutonium atoms are split in MOX fuel, new plutonium is formed.

So why do it? One theory is that DOE wants to give nuclear utilities a direct taxpayer subsidy to keep their aging, noncompetitive nuclear reactors operating in the face of electric market deregulation. MOX is nothing more than nuclear welfare. The utilities will get the fuel for free, and in fact, may be paid for using it.

If we want to get rid of plutonium forever, then we should make it into glass logs, and find somewhere to put it where it will be safe for the next 24,000 years. Sound like a daunting task? Maybe we should have thought of this before we started making plutonium.

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