It is impossible to entirely separate a civilian nuclear power program from a potential nuclear weapons program. President Bush knows this, which is why he is so concerned about Iran’s nuclear energy program. And this is why our country should not undercut nonproliferation goals by restarting a domestic reprocessing program, now called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). After putting the effort aside three decades ago, GNEP would reprocess plutonium from civilian nuclear power reactors. Reprocessing is dangerous — creating more fissile material that can be sabotaged or stolen by terrorists from storage or during transportation. But most importantly, a renewed U.S. reprocessing effort will set precisely the wrong example for the rest of the world.
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (H.R. 8638) by President Jimmy Carter. The NNPA outlines sound policy based on the inherent connection between peaceful nuclear energy technology and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, committing the U.S. to abandon practices that would increase stocks of dangerous plutonium.
Through the NNPA, the U.S. committed to using a “once-through” nuclear fuel cycle which cools and then stores spent uranium fuel rods intact with the plutonium and other nuclear wastes that are radioactive enough to make theft of the material almost impossible. Other fuel cycles chemically separate the plutonium from other fission byproducts, and in its pure form, this dangerous material is easily portable.
Plutonium was originally separated to build nuclear weapons. Less than 8 kilograms of plutonium is needed for a nuclear explosive powerful enough to destroy a city. With the risk of theft or sale of such material to terrorists, it is unthinkable that President Bush wants to restart the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and add to the global plutonium stockpile.
Plutonium is also used in a nuclear fuel called mixed oxide, or MOX. Once proposed to bring down the cost and waste of nuclear power by reusing parts of spent fuel, MOX has proven to be neither cost effective nor waste reducing. Discoveries of uranium deposits and the decreased construction of power plants have kept the price of uranium lower than expected. Reprocessing creates its own radioactive waste products in need of proper disposal and actually increases the amount of hazardous waste in the fuel cycle.
Plutonium separation is also unnecessary for existing nuclear weapon stockpiles. Plutonium “pits” in existing warheads are monitored for reliability through the Stockpile Stewardship program, and it is now thought that these will be reliable for at least 40 more years. In addition, the U.S. has 92 metric tons of plutonium ready to use in pits should they be needed (54 tons of which are designated as “excess military material”). New nuclear weapon designs do not have Congressional support and run counter to the nonproliferation goals the U.S. is trying to promote around the world.
Two recent mishaps in the handling of our own nuclear arsenal prove that no country is immune to the dangers of accident or oversight.
Reprocessing would undercut more than ten years of international effort to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament. It won’t bring down the cost of nuclear power because the process is more costly than the fresh-uranium alternative. Reprocessing does not reduce waste in the nuclear fuel cycle, but creates new radioactive byproducts that need careful and costly disposal.
The United States should not reverse 30 years of sound policy. We should not allow the Bush administration to double-talk our nation into GNEP – an expensive, hazardous, and dangerous enterprise that decreases our security. The United States should stand by its nonproliferation commitments and maintain the once-through nuclear fuel cycle.