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Nuclear Power Plant Fuel--a source of Plutonium for Weapons?

 

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 rods.

"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 reactors.

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 for terrorism.

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.

NOTES:

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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 monitored.

July 19, 1996, Kay Drey