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Weapons Grade Plutonium:
Not In My Backyard.

May 6, 2002

(Decatur, Georgia) - The cold war between the former USSR and the United States held the world in nuclear fear for decades as both sides continued to arm themselves with nuclear weapons that had the potential to destroy the world many times over. In fact, by 1990 the United States and Russia had more than 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads aimed at each other. Those who advocated the arms race eventually cost both countries trillions of dollars, and we are still paying the tab for their nuclear folly.

Today our most difficult challenge is to answer the question that should have been posed long ago: what do we do with the nuclear arsenal now that it is no longer needed? Not much thought was put into the concept that weapons grade plutonium could not be stored in nuclear warheads indefinitely. Once produced, weapons grade plutonium will remain dangerous for approximately 24,360 years. Now we are left with the nuclear relics of a world gone mad and the truth is we have no idea what to do with them.

In September of 2000, both the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement that committed each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium. While the commitment was applauded, the method was uncertain. The Clinton Administration endorsed a dual track approach to dispose of the plutonium using two different methods.

The first method is called MOX, which stands for mixed oxide. MOX is the product of mixing plutonium and uranium to make a reactor fuel to power commercial nuclear power plants. The second method of disposal is immobilization. Immobilization is an approach that mixes plutonium with a non-radioactive material and puts the mixture into a ceramic form. It is then transferred into a steel cylinder and molten glass is then poured around it. It is near impossible to steal and extremely dangerous to extract the plutonium from the glass logs, therefore eliminating attempts to re-use the plutonium for weapons of mass destruction.

Neither of these two methods is ideal, and a safe and efficient disposal technology has yet to be discovered to eliminate the threat of plutonium. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the problem of disposal will be with us for a very long time. Many prominent environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Nuclear Control Institute, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Natural Resources Defense Council have publicly denounced the MOX option as fatally flawed. They believe, as do many, that this dangerous option could lead to the widespread commercial use of plutonium fuel, thereby eliminating the degree of difficulty to obtain plutonium by a terrorist state.

Not only has the MOX option been declared a threat to security, but also there are still many doubts as to the safety of using weapons grade plutonium as a fuel. A recent study by the Nuclear Control Institute predicts that a severe accident at a reactor fueled with MOX could cause twice as many fatal cancers as an identical accident at a uranium reactor. Most nuclear power plants are not equipped to handle the shear force of weapons plutonium. In order for this to work, new plants, reengineered and refitted, would have to be constructed with the American people once again picking up the tab. The Department of Energy (DOE) has declared that it would abandon the immobilization approach because of recent budget constraints. It seems odd, that the DOE would make this decision despite the many scientific predictions that MOX is actually slower and more expensive than immobilization. In fact, it could require billions of dollars in taxpayer's subsidies to electrical utility companies.

Not only is the current administration making dangerous decisions that will adversely affect us all, they are doing so at the expense of the health and safety of the American public. The DOE has gone too far with their mandates of nuclear folly. Not only are they ignoring the opinion of the world as to what to do with our weapons grade plutonium, they are infringing upon the rights of individual states that are wise enough to realize that they want no part of this nightmare. In fact, despite South Carolina's Governor Jim Hodges's objections to bringing weapons grade plutonium into his state to be processed into MOX fuel, the DOE has effectively told the people of South Carolina that they have no choice in the matter. The situation has recently escalated to the point of potential conflict. Governor Hodges's has gone so far as to threaten the DOE that if weapons grade plutonium attempts to cross the state line, he will be waiting with state troopers to intercept the trucks and send them back to where they came from, and I will be there with him, at least in spirit.

As Georgians we must applaud Governor Hodges' convictions. We must stand up for our rights and demand that we not be exposed to the threat of nuclear contamination any longer. Those nuclear shipments, which may eventually end up being processed at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, will most likely come through metro Atlanta before they reach their final destination. The potential to contaminate Georgia's waterways from activities at the Savannah River Site has already been shown. Groundwater in Burke County, Georgia has already been contaminated with tritium as a result of DOE's activities at the Savannah River Site. Just imagine the contamination risks associated if the DOE has its way and weapons grade plutonium is sent to South Carolina to be reprocessed into MOX fuel.

The variables are too great, and I believe that we must stand with Governor Hodges. The threat of nuclear exposure could very well become a reality and the consequences for DOE's actions are unacceptable. It is time the DOE realized that the special interests that convinced them it pursue this reckless task are not answerable to the American people, but Spencer-Abraham and his boss, President Bush, most definitely are.


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