Nuclear Politics All MOXed Out


 

On January 14, 1997,
representatives from 171 medical, environmental,
and activist organizations in the United States
and 18 other countries—including every major
nuclear power except China and Israel—sent a
letter to President Bill Clinton asking him to
overrule a decision by former Energy Secretary
Hazel O’Leary to process plutonium from
nuclear warheads and "burn" it in
civilian nuclear reactors in a hybrid nuclear
cocktail called Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX). The
president has so far ignored the call.

On January 28, the
Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Request for
Proposals, asking nuclear utilities to submit
plans to convert or build one or more nuclear
power plants to produce tritium gas—a
radioactive element that boosts the destructive
power of nuclear bombs. At least 12 companies
have already responded to the request. The DOE
request was made despite the fact that there is
now more than enough tritium available for
nuclear bomb use well into the next century.

Mary Olson of the
Washington, DC-based Nuclear Information and
Resource Service (NIRS) is the person most
directly responsible for organizing the January
14 protest letter to the president. Olson, a
victim of radioactive poisoning in a medical
laboratory accident, says that Clinton’s new
policies are a qualitative leap into a whole new
level of isotope idiocy.

"There are at least
three major problems with the new MOX
proposal," says Olson. "First, the use
of a MOX fuel partly derived from bombs vastly
increases radioactivity in both high level and
so-called low-level nuclear wastes that now
poison our environment—and will for
thousands of years. Second, the paper-thin wall
between the civilian and military nuclear
establishments will be totally dissolved so that
a small secretive military-industrial-utility
complex will absolutely dominate the field.

"Third—because of
the impending utility deregulation—DOE will
almost certainly end up spending tax dollars to
prop up the civilian nuclear power industry under
the guise of the MOX program just when these
reactors could be phased out."

Additionally, according to
nuke watchers, using the bomb-processed MOX fuel
in civilian reactors will require ever-expanding
national security-level, police-state measures
that will take over nuclear plants, public
transportation facilities, and other sites that
were formerly under some civilian control and
somewhat accountable to the public.

As for tritium production,
it just is not necessary, according to numerous
nuclear experts, including Greenpeace. Using the
tritium from warheads already retired under the
provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
(START), along with exploiting an existing
stockpile of the element, would supply
bomb-makers with all the tritium that they
"need" until the year 2011—the
year when both the U.S. and Russia have agreed to
cut their nuclear bomb stocks even further,
lessening the demand for tritium and freeing up
more for use, Greenpeace reports. According to
Olson, Greenpeace, and other experts, using
plutonium-oxide processed from decommissioned
nuclear warheads in MOX fuel, has never been
tried before, and producing more tritium is just
plain dumb.

A Lot Of MOX-ie

The Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research (IEER), based in
Takoma Park, Maryland, has recently issued a
comprehensive (and comprehensible) summary of the
MOX controversy in its newsletter, Science for
Democratic Action<D>
(Vol. 5, No. 4).
The lead article, by IEER President Arjun
Makhijani, breaks down the basic MOX technology
and discusses the most important consequences of
the dangerous fuel. The publication also proposes
the use of a safer and saner alternative to
control weapons-grade
plutonium—immobilization through
vitrification.

The plutonium/MOX
controversy began to take off when the DOE
announced that it would study a
"dual-track" approach to control the 50
metric tons of "surplus" weapons-grade
plutonium created by the end of the Cold War,
Makhijani writes. That plutonium became surplus
after the U.S. and former Soviet Union states
agreed to dismantle thousands of nuclear
warheads.

(Plutonium makes up the
core or "pit" of nuclear bombs.
Observers on every side of the nuclear weapons
controversy seem to agree that after a weapon is
dismantled, the pit remains highly dangerous
because it is relatively easy to transport and
remake into a new nuclear bomb. The problem is:
you can’t get rid of plutonium from bombs;
you always create new waste and if you put it in
a reactor you generate more bomb-grade material).

Some of the plutonium from
the pits, according to the Clinton
"dual-track" proposal, would be
vitrified—mixed with molten glass and other
materials—and immobilized. But the vast
majority would be processed into MOX. Here lies
the primal sin of the nuclear world—neither
of these options solves the fundamental problem
of nuclear waste: all control options are
extremely costly, create massive amounts of new
pollution that last for thousands of years, and
are temporary.

But according to Makhijani
and others, the nuclear-watch community is
unified in supporting immobilization through
vitrification over the use of MOX. Here’s
why: MOX is created when plutonium-oxide powder
is mixed with uranium-oxide powder which is then
compressed into pellets. The pellets are loaded
into fuel rods that are wrapped in bundles that
are placed into nuclear reactors as fuel. After
the fuel is "burned," the rods are
removed and stored and the reactor is refueled.

Currently, three European
plants make MOX fuel—two in France, one in
Belgium. A fourth will soon come on-line in
Britain. None of these plants uses fuel that has
been reprocessed from decommissioned weapons. All
use plutonium-oxide already "normally"
produced in the operation of nuclear reactors.
The French, British, Russians, and Japanese have
been proponents of reprocessing plutonium from
uranium oxide for decades. But reprocessing
plants have the same problems that any nuclear
plant has: they expose workers and the public to
dangerous radiation and they produce massive
amounts of highly toxic wastes that must somehow
be safely stored until a technology is developed
to neutralize the stuff. No such technology
exists.

Also, Makhijani writes, all
nuclear plants produce plutonium, even the ones
that "burn" it as fuel. While the
so-called "breeder" reactors
intentionally create enormous amounts of the
plutonium poison to use as more fuel, in the end,
it is technologically impossible to completely
"burn" all weapons-grade plutonium
produced in a controlled nuclear reaction in
atomic power plants of any kind. So, for the past
20 years, DOE has opposed the creation of
"breeder" technology.

The new DOE proposal goes
well beyond these "normal" problems.
Since bomb-grade plutonium has never been used
before in MOX fuels, even by the breeder zealots,
nobody knows exactly what it will do or what
poisons it will produce. It is a high-tech
sorcerers brew.

One problem with using
bomb-grade plutonium in MOX is that nuclear bomb
pits are laced with an alloying element called
gallium which holds them together as a sort of
"glue." When the pits are cut in half
and processed into plutonium-oxide powder, the
gallium must be removed or the powder becomes
unusable. The gallium-removal process causes a
vast amount of pollution, and it has not yet been
totally perfected.

More telling is the fact
that the very existence of gallium in nuclear
warhead pits was declassified just about a year
ago. Plutonium pits contain many other elements
that have not been declassified, so only the
people who have made the bombs really know what
is in them. Objective scientists are left to base
much of their work on what the bomb-makers tell
them.

Other technical problems
associated with the Clinton-proposed MOX system
include the fact that plutonium increases certain
kinds of radiation in reactors, damaging internal
systems even more severely than uranium radiation
does; plutonium demands a greater amount of
"neutron absorbers" to control the
reactor; and in the case of an accident,
plutonium radiation, which is even more toxic
than uranium radiation, would be released
directly into the environment.

In addition, the new scheme
poses numerous transportation problems. Since MOX
initially can only be made in Europe, the U.S.
utilities would have to fly plutonium to the
fabricating country, where it would be hauled by
truck and/or rail. The general public and workers
who process and transport the material would be
exposed to new dangers, and more equipment would
be contaminated, further increasing waste
problems.

In the nuclear world,
"cheap fuel" always becomes
astronomically expensive. There are production
costs, distribution costs, "burn" costs
and most significantly, waste costs. Nobody
really knows what the overall bill for the
nuclear mess ultimately will come to, but
consider this: DOE estimates that current
civilian nuclear "clean-up" costs run
at about $250 billion in the U.S. alone. Nuclear
activists in the environmental community say that
the true number is closer to $1 trillion. (About
95 percent of all radioactivity produced in the
nuclear age comes from commercial reactors, so
weapons-related expenses add another $50
billion).

That means, if the
commercial nuclear industry in the U.S. were shut
down today, we’d be looking at a trillion
dollar bill to contain waste until methods are
developed to neutralize the vast amounts of
radioactive and chemical poisons created by
nuclear energy. Every new crazy nuclear idea,
like converting bomb pits to MOX, adds to that
bill.

Big Dogs On A
Dirty Lot

One thing that nearly all
industry observers agree on is that the rapidly
reregulating utility industry stands to make
billions from the MOX scam—about a billion
dollars for each reactor that gets with the
program (one-third of that coming from waivers of
mandated decommissioning fees). "The
uncertainties of deregulation are forcing
utilities to look for ways to cut costs and raise
revenues almost immediately," says Dave
Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service
(NEIS) based in Evanston, Illinois. (According to
a report from the competing natural gas industry,
as much as 40 percent of commercial nuclear
generating power will be taken over by other
power sources due to the forces of a deregulated
market).

Since the MOX process
involves recycling nuclear bomb parts controlled
by DOE, taxpayers will subsidize the industry and
the public will be stuck with higher utility
rates to pay for the long-term costs created by
MOX nukes and nuclear plants in general, predicts
Olson of NIRS.

The U.S. utility that
stands to gain the most from the new moxification
process is the Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison
Co. ComEd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unicom
Corp., an energy holding company with revenues
that approach $25 billion per year. ComEd, which
operates 12 nuclear power plants, was the first
commercial utility out of the atomic gate with
the Dresden 1 reactor. ComEd now produces 80
percent of its power in nukes.

Though ComEd is the largest
and oldest commercial nuclear operator in the
United States, it has consistently been cited for
bad performance by the presidentially appointed
atomic power licensing organization, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The world’s premiere
commercial nuclear power charges its customers 60
percent more than utilities in neighboring
states, according to Barnaby J. Feder of the New
York Times<D>
. A years-long organizing
effort led by public interest lawyer, Howard
Learner, recently won back a billion dollars in
rate overcharges for Illinois ratepayers that the
company had illegally charged.

Worst of all, six ComEd
reactors—half of its nuclear
facilities—have been put on the NRC Watch
List. Each offending reactor has been cited for
numerous and dangerous faults (for example
ComEd’s LaSalle plant, originally proposed
as a MOX reactor, recently received the third
highest commercial nuclear fine in U.S.
history—$650,000). The NRC has put only
seven other reactors on the list throughout the
country. (A total of 109 commercial U.S. reactors
are currently in operation.)

A closer look at
ComEd’s safety history reveals gross
mismanagement, negligence, and arrogance since
Dresden 1 first came on line. "Illinois
nuclear plants (ComEd owns 12 of the 13 in the
state), on the whole, are dogs," says NEIS
researcher Kraft. "There’s just no
other way to put it."

PEACE Spells
WAR

On January 28, ComEd
presented to the NRC Project PEACE (Plutonium
Excess Arms Converted to Electricity) a joint
public/private international partnership to
fabricate and "burn" plutonium MOX fuel
in four reactors at two of its sites. This was
the same day that DOE issued its formal Requests
for Proposals for new tritium production
facilities. (DOE has already selected the
Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 1
reactor as the first tritium production site).

"Project PEACE has a
likely real outcome of producing WAR, or World at
Risk," responded the NIRS publication, Nuclear
Monitor<D>
(February 1997).

Ironically, until recently,
ComEd agreed. The December 12, 1996, edition of
the Energy<D> Daily<D>—an
industry newsletter published in Washington,
DC—ran an article, "ComEd Raises Spent
Fuel Questions On DOE Plutonium Disposal
Plan." Citing a May 4, 1996 letter from
ComEd to DOE, commenting on DOE’s new MOX
plan, Energy Daily<D> quotes ComEd
as telling DOE: "Spent fuel pools would fill
up too fast under DOE’s dual-track MOX
proposal; high-level waste transportation and
disposal would be negatively affected by MOX;
DOE’s environmental impact statement is
‘unrealistic’."

DOE responded to
ComEd’s worrisome letter essentially by
saying that the problems were all in ComEd’s
head, or DOE would eventually solve them and
there would be nothing to worry about. Apparently
those arguments and the potential multi-billion
dollar revenues of MOX convinced ComEd to change
its position and propose the PEACE plan. Even
more ironically, in a fit of nuclear logic, ComEd
used its skeptical letter to DOE as supporting
evidence in its PEACE proposal.

The proposal was little
more than a high-tech dog-and-pony show performed
by ComEd public relations geniuses and cronies at
an NRC hearing at the NRC on January 28. With
straight faces, ComEd flacks introduced the PEACE
acronym. ComEd’s purpose was clearly to whip
the NRC in line before they actually began to
license facilities. The PR people and
technicians-for-hire explained that the
"PEACE Mission," would "Effect
optimal disposition of excess weapons grade
plutonium inventories in the United States and
the former Soviet union through the use of MOX
fuel technology," according to a
ComEd-developed script.

The proposed project team
would include ComEd, Duke Power, British Nuclear
Fuels, and the French state nuclear company
Cogema. The primary purpose of PEACE would be to
initiate a "Euro-Fab [fabrication] rapid
start." The "secondary" purpose of
PEACE would involve U.S. government fabrication
and licensing. The NRC would be charged with
licensing the reactors to use MOX in the first
stage, then to actually produce it later on.

In the course of its
presentation, ComEd cited its MOX experience from
the 1960s and 1970s at its Dresden and Quad
Cities’ facilities as evidence of
ComEd’s extensive qualifications. Both
Dresden and Quad cities received extremely low
ratings in the Critical Mass "Nuclear
Lemons," report and have been continually
cited by the NRC for numerous violations of
safety and procedure. Neither have ever used a
MOX fuel fabricated from decommissioned nuclear
weapons.

ComEd officials also
claimed that "No significant technical
issues," remain to impede their MOX program
and the "Project PEACE team has the
experience and can provide the full range of
technical capabilities to meet DOE’s MOX
disposition mission." DOE is now mulling
over the PEACE proposal. Since they invited ComEd
to make the proposal in the first place, their
final decision is a given. The NRC—allegedly
the nation’s nuclear watch dog—is not
likely to do anything but ooh and ah as ComEd and
its partners easily seduced them with a slide
show and Beltway brunches.

Why Now?

The U.S. and former soviet
states have dismantled tens of thousands of
nuclear weapons and neither party has the vaguest
idea what to do with the detritus. Worse, every
nuclear reaction, peaceful or not, creates
massive amounts of toxic materials that can
"live" for tens of thousands of years
spewing death and disease. There is no known way
to neutralize many nuclear poisons once they are
created. Clearly, the United States is most
responsible for the creation of the nuclear
horror. Ours is the only nation that has ever
used nuclear weapons against others. The United
States government initiated the arms race and
created the myth of the peaceful atom.

The Clinton administration
has raised the stakes by reintroducing the
production of tritium, proposed a vast new MOX
program, and promoted the use of nuclear power
world-wide. Clinton appointed a nuclear industry
executive, Hazel O’Leary, as his first
Secretary of Energy. O’Leary, former vice
president of the nuclearized Northern States
Power Co., used her term in office to run around
the world cheering on the industry, even telling
the Chinese that they should buy U.S.-made nukes
(with an aside that it will be about 35 years
before the industry begins selling new ones here
again).

Now Clinton has proposed
former U.S. Transportation Secretary and Denver
Mayor Frederico Pena to replace O’Leary.
Pena has already said that he does not know much
about nuclear weapons or energy. He did not even
know that DOE is responsible for
"peaceful" nukes, as well as the care
and disposal of the Big Ones. This is an
exceedingly appalling ignorance, considering that
Pena’s home town, Denver, is just a few
whiffs downwind from the infamous Rocky Flats
nuclear weapons plant. Nuclear triggers were
assembled there, but the place became so
dangerous and was so poorly managed
that—after a series of FBI-led raids
initiated by vehement local protests about
mismanagement and corruption—DOE decided to
shut the place down. It’s one of the most
poisonous nuclear sites in the world.

Pena seems to be well liked
by Senate Republicans who ultimately control his
confirmation. But they support Senate 104
(S.104),—the "Mobile Chernobyl"
bill that Clinton has threatened to veto. S. 104
proposes that high-level nuclear wastes be
shipped to Yucca Mountain, Nevada for storage.

There are two fundamental
problems with S. 104—the ever-present
transportation safety and theft issues, which are
impossible to solve, and Yucca Mountain is
unsuitable as a storage site. It is located in an
area as geologically unstable as San Francisco
and has water table problems that ensure eventual
poisoning of that dwindling Western resource.

@PAR AFTERJ<@191>UB =
Russia and former soviet states have created the
world’s most disastrous nuclear program,
having poisoned millions of square kilometers in
the Urals, the North Sea, Khazakistan, the
Ukraine, Siberia, and elsewhere. The former
soviet nuclear establishment sees the stuff as a
valuable resource. It works like this: they have
been humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the economic "reform" program
imposed on them by the U.S. through the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
(Russian demographers have attributed a million
deaths directly caused by economic restructuring,
according to the New York Times<D>).

But plutonium is limitless.
They can dig it out of the ground. They can
manufacture it in nuclear reactors and
"breeder reactors." They can salvage it
from the thousands of warheads that they
dismantled through the SALT and START arms
control agreements negotiated with the U.S. They
can sell it for cold cash. And its greatest value
is blackmail; they still have thousands of bombs.
Or they can threaten to sell some to
"terrorists." They can use it for MOX
fuel. Most importantly, it is a resource that is
impossible for the U.S.—or any other
power—to take from them. In nuke-think
terms, plutonium guarantees their sovereignty as
a nation. Plutonium is a god in the nuclear age.
MOX is a sacred offspring.

The terror created by the
United States and refined by the Soviet Union
during the Cold War has now become a global
phenomenon. The French and British have been
gung-ho on nukes from the git-go. India,
Pakistan, and China dance the dance of mutual
destruction on a regular basis. Apartheid South
Africa and Israel jointly worked on nuclear
weapons and the Israelis are said to have
hundreds of war-heads. South Africa probably has
a few.

Even Canada developed a
fairly extensive nuclear program. Just in case
the MOX program runs into political trouble in
the U.S., the Canadians are waiting in line to
"burn" the stuff in their CANDU
reactors—"heavy water" machines
that would process MOX easier than the U.S.
"light water" versions.

Taiwan has recently cut a
deal to send its nuclear waste to North Korea;
and the North Koreans have been re-educated in
the value of nuclear Stratego by the U.S. (we are
helping them develop new reactors that are
allegedly safer than their current creaky Russian
models).

Because of the hegemony of
the global "free-market" economy, the
less-industrialized world in general is extremely
susceptible to having to trade land for cash
simply to eat (and buy weapons). Africa, which is
almost nuke-free, is certain to become a dumping
ground for some of the new MOX-created waste. And
so it goes.

On March 1, Michael
Mariotte, director of NIRS, emailed the following
report from Gorleben, Germany: "15,000
people rallied peacefully Saturday in the small
city of Lueneburg against the transport of six
Castor high level nuclear waste casks. The casks
are traveling by rail from southern Germany to
the northern town of Gorleben…The casks will be
transferred from train to truck for the final
eight miles into Gorleben—an
‘interim’ storage site. Thousands of
protesters are now camped along the final few
miles of rail routes and the last eight miles of
highway. Their goal is to try to prevent the
casks from reaching their destination.

"More than 25,000
police from all over Germany have been mobilized
to escort the casks—the biggest mobilization
of German police since WWII. The German
government has warned protesters not to interfere
with the shipments—a warning that has
already fallen on deaf ears…The issue is front
page news in Europe and the lead story on TV
news….Congress is now considering a bill (S.
104) that would begin such radioactive waste
transport [in] the U.S. The confrontations near
Gorleben this week may be our future as
well."

Shortly after Mariotte sent
his report, news organizations reported that
anti-nuclear protesters challenged 30,000 police
in and around Gorleben and pelted them with
bottles and rocks. The police turnout was the
largest since the Nazi era. Farmers parked
tractors blocking roads, say the reports, and
burning barricades were erected on railroad
tracks and across roads. Thousands, among at
least 10,000 protesters, sat on the tracks until
police forcibly removed them. Others dug up roads
and blocked them with logs. Some Molotov
cocktails were reportedly thrown, and police
accused demonstrators of exploding a pipe bomb.

The German Green Party has
been active in the protests, which have been
escalating for years. "It is irresponsible
to carry on with nuclear energy when we
don’t know what to do with the waste,"
said national Green leader, Joschka Fischer.
"There is only one alternative—to
abolish nuclear power in the face of popular
protest," concludes another Greens leader,
Gunda Roestal.

The German nuclear
waste—which had been reprocessed in
France—finally reached its destination on
March 5. Protesters say that the massive police
presence and obtaining worldwide publicity once
again drew serious attention to the nuclear
nightmare that all of humanity lives in—and
will die in, if we don’t abolish nuclear
weapons and nuclear power.   <S>Z<D>

Tom Johnson is a freelance
writer and photographer specializing in
labor-related issues.