The U.S. nuclear power industry, long identified with the peaceful uses of atomic energy, is on the verge of a new, potentially more perilous involvement with key materials used in nuclear weapons.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association, at least two utility companies, Duke Energy Corp. of North Carolina and Virginia Power, are bidding on a government project to run commercial reactors on a mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX, made up in part of plutonium extracted from the nation’s surplus stockpile of nuclear weapons.
No companies operating reactors in California are known to have bid on the plutonium fuel at this point.
Conceived as a swords-to-plowshares plan for transforming doomsday weapons into household energy, the MOX project is part of an effort to substantially reduce nuclear weapons stockpiled in both the U.S. and Russia.
Industry representatives maintain that the storage of the MOX fuel will pose minimal risks because the fuel will be quickly processed in the reactors. Once the fuel is placed in a reactor, the plutonium cannot be safely extracted.
“The fuel only spends a short while on site before it goes into the reactor,” said Felix Killar, an official of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s Washington-based lobbying arm.
He also said that technology exists to retrofit reactors with control features designed to ensure the safe processing of MOX fuel. Some commercial reactors wouldn’t need any modification to safely handle the fuel, he said.
But critics contend the project would put weapons-grade plutonium in the hands of commercial reactors that have been held to less rigorous standards of security than government weapons plants supervised by the Department of Energy.
Moreover, the critics point out that the agency that regulates commercial power plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been eliminating some security programs and failing to update others.
“If the NRC was protecting against today’s bombs and terrorists instead of yesterday’s, we wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about the plutonium issue,” said Paul Levanthol, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates nuclear nonproliferation.
Plutonium is uniquely dangerous because a speck of it can cause cancer if it is inhaled and a few pounds can create a nuclear explosion capable of destroying a city.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration has opened the door to another project involving weapons-related material. The effort would allow reactors used up until now for civilian purposes to make tritium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Tritium is a radioactive gas used to boost the explosive power of nuclear bombs.
“A number of utilities are interested in the tritium program,” Killar said.
To date, however, the only commercial-reactor owner that has bid on the tritium project is the Tennessee Valley Authority--a government entity, according to Undersecretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.
“The only bid on the table is the one from the TVA,” Moniz said Friday. But, he added, the government has not closed the bidding to commercially owned utilities.
Plutonium Program Creates Fears
Because the TVA is already government owned, “if it is a TVA reactor” making tritium, “the blurring is less,” Moniz said, referring to the traditional line between commercial reactors and those used in the nation’s weapons program.
But critics of the proposal argue that although the TVA, in the past, has provided electrical power for the production of weapons ingredients, it has not been involved in directly making bomb ingredients, as it would with tritium.
“The TVA reactors are civil facilities selling commercial power and regulated under the weaker security standards of the NRC,” said Dan Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group.
The Energy Department is expected to announce by the end of the year whether it will use reactors to make the tritium or employ a nuclear accelerator that the department would build and own.
Although tritium has a number of uses outside of weapons, the MOX fuel proposal directly involves the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The proposal is part of a dual-track plan for disposing of approximately 52 tons of plutonium from the nation’s bomb stockpile.
On one track, a portion of the plutonium from weapons would be immobilized in glass, a process known as “vitrification,” and then buried in a high-level nuclear waste dump.
The rest of the plutonium would be made available to commercial reactors to use as fuel.
Immobilization is preferred by critics of the MOX proposal, who fear that if plutonium-based fuel becomes a practical way to run power plants, the industry will come to depend on a very dangerous substance.
“Once money is invested in the process and jobs are dependent on it, the temptation will be not to shut down the program in 20 years when the current weapons stockpile is depleted,” said Arjun Makhijani, a former nuclear engineer who is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington, D.C.
A more pressing concern, say Makhijani and other critics, is the possibility of theft and sabotage.
The current plan calls for plutonium to be extracted from weapons at a government facility in Texas, then transported cross-country to a fuel fabrication plant to be built most likely at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. From there, the fuel would be moved to customers in the nuclear power industry. Preparations for the work would take several years, but the Energy Department says commercial reactors could be using plutonium fuel by 2007.
Plutonium could make power plants more attractive targets to thieves because the material can be separated comparatively simply from the MOX fuel before it is used in the reactors. The rest of the materials for construction of an atomic bomb would be relatively easy to acquire.
Both the MOX and tritium ventures raise security concerns at a time when the NRC is being widely criticized for relaxing security measures at commercial plants in order to save both the government and the industry millions of dollars.
In September, less than two months after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the NRC canceled the government’s only testing of the counter-terrorism capabilities of commercial power plants.
The program was temporarily reinstated last week, after a Times article about the cancellation of the program prompted protests and inquiries from Congress and from the National Security Council.
In a speech to industry officials Friday, NRC Chairwoman Shirley Ann Jackson said that counter-terrorism tests will be conducted at the 11 nuclear plants whose security programs have never been tested. In the meantime, the agency will review the program with an eye toward making it more acceptable to the industry.
Power companies have criticized the inspection program for being outside the agency’s authority, Jackson said, adding that “the commission previously has stated its intent to move away, to the extent possible, from prescriptive inspections.”
However, Jackson continued, “the necessary inspection requirements to meet a risk-based security program have not been sufficiently documented.”
The NRC has not reversed another recent decision to drop out of a federal intelligence network that provides rapid assessment of terrorist threats and their credibility.
Questions of Safety
Where it once took a matter of hours for the NRC to evaluate the seriousness of a threat against a utility, it can now take several days, said John J. Davidson, an NRC intelligence analyst who has sharply criticized the decision to drop out of the interagency program.
Officials of the agency tend to disagree with his conclusion.
“We have turned to the FBI to evaluate threats, and we already have had one example of their getting back to us on a threat in less than a day,” said Beth Hayden, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Other agency personnel, who have asked not to be identified, have echoed long-standing concerns of nuclear watchdog groups that the NRC’s requirements for protecting plants against explosives are inadequate to withstand the force of a bomb such as the one that blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City three years ago.
The NRC has acknowledged that more stringent security requirements may be called for if utilities licensed by the agency begin handling plutonium or any other weapons-ready radioactive material, but, according to Hayden, nothing has been done yet.