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.
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
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
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.