Nuclear Power Plant Fuel -
a source of Plutonium for Weapons?
Nuclear Electromagnetic Radiation Protection
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
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 of nuclear 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.
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