Many people may not realize that every nuclear power plant -- as a normal
part of the fissioning process -- produces plutonium. Plutonium and/or
highly-enriched uranium are essential ingredients of nuclear bombs.
Every year the thousand-megawatt Callaway reactor in Missouri, for example,
produces an estimated 293 kilograms of plutonium 1. -- enough plutonium every
year to make forty nuclear bombs (each containing about 7.3 kilograms
[16 pounds] of mixed isotopes of plutonium per bomb).2
If the nuclear power reactor continues operating for a total of 30
years, it will have produced enough plutonium for at least 1200 bombs.
Every year and a half, some of the irradiated fuel rods -- all of which
contain plutonium 3 -- are removed from the reactor vessel and are replaced with
fresh uranium rods. The irradiated rods are then stored in a concrete
spent-fuel pool or in dry-storage canisters -- on site --for an indefinite
amount of time. No permanent repository exists anywhere for the irradiated
"Reprocessing" technologies exist that can extract plutonium from
irradiated reactor fuel. Although no commercial reprocessing plant is currently
operating in the U.S., reprocessing is under way in Japan, England, France,
Russia and India. And the Department of Energy and Japan are expending
significant funds here in the U.S. on research, development, and demonstration
projects for cheaper, faster, more efficient ways to reprocess irradiated fuel.
The nuclear industry and others support the reprocessing of irradiated,
commercial nuclear power plant fuel and the "recycling," then, of its
extracted plutonium into new nuclear plant fuel (a mixture of uranium and
plutonium oxides). Proponents of reprocessing are advocating the "burn-up"
of plutonium as fuel in existing and/or "advanced" nuclear power
Environmentalists, on the other hand, point out that past reprocessing has
been responsible for major environmental degradation in the countries that have
employed it, including the United States. In order to extract plutonium,
reprocessing requires that irradiated reactor fuel rods -- the most radioactive
materials on earth -- be cut up, and dissolved in a solvent, resulting in the
release of massive quantities of radioactive gases and other substances.
Leakage of the remaining stored high-level radioactive wastes at West Valley,
New York; Hanford, Washington; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Savannah River, South
Carolina, has created cleanup problems that will take hundreds of billions of
dollars, with complete remediation an impossibility.
They also warn that terrorists could steal the extracted plutonium from
stockpiles at reprocessing or fuel fabrication plants, or during transport
between the facilities, and use it in the manufacture ofnuclear bombs. The
potential for sabotage or theft at these facilities would be substantial.
Additionally, other dangers inherent in nuclear power plants would remain:
the routine releases of fission products into the environment, the exposure of
workers to radiation, the potential for a major accident, and the accumulation
of long-lived wastes from the reactors' continuing operation. 4
Proposals pending in Congress to transport the irradiated fuel that is
currently stockpiled at some seventy nuclear power plant locations out to Nevada
for interim storage -- and possibly someday, for ultimate disposal or
reprocessing -- would place thousands of shipments of plutonium-bearing fuel
onto our railroads and highways, coast-to-coast. Federal regulations require
that armed escorts be present during all shipments of irradiated fuel --
evidence that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real.
No American electric utility has placed an order for a nuclear power plant
that was not subsequently canceled since October 1973 (the Palo Verde plant in
Arizona). That is, no new nuclear plants are being added. However, every
existing reactor, because of the presence of plutonium, is a potential target
Nuclear reactors and the plutonium they generate threaten the hope for world
peace and survival.
We would like to acknowledge the contribution by Dr. Thomas B. Cochran,
Senior Staff Scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who calculated
the annual plutonium production of the Callaway nuclear power plant.
- 1. The above calculation of 293 kilograms of plutonium per year assumes the
Callaway reactor (1150-megawatt electric; 3565-megawatt thermal) operates at 80%
of its capacity. Please remember: approximately 60 percent of the plutonium
will be plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years and remains
hazardous for at least ten half-lives.
- 2. See Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 50, No. 1, Part II, Jan.
1978, page S29. With greater technical expertise, a nuclear weapon can be
built with considerably less plutonium than the amount estimated here.
- 3. Although the plutonium generated by a commercial nuclear power plant is
not technically "weapons grade," it has long been acknowledged that
nuclear bombs can be and have been built with reactor-grade plutonium.
- 4. All nuclear power plants release radioactive gases, liquids, and
particulates into the environment as a part of their routine operation. It does
not take an accident. Such releases include tritium (radioactive hydrogen) and
other radioactive gaseous material, much of which can be neither filtered nor
July 19, 1996, Kay Drey