With the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaching, the U.S. is wondering what to do with the plutonium it no longer needs for nuclear weapons. The U.S. Department of Energy would like to convert it for use in nuclear power plants. Other folks aren’t so sure about that proposal.
Sitting as I do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I view a proposal to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants as a sobering proposition.
We’re directly between South Carolina’s Savannah River nuclear reservation, where some of that plutonium is stored, and nuclear power plants in Tennessee and Alabama, where the fuel could be used.
“Using plutonium from weapons, there would be a regular traffic of plutonium oxide from dismantlement and storage sites to fabrication facilities and reactors, with the risk of attack along transportation routes,” said Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
“The cost estimate for construction of the plutonium fuel plant at Savannah River Site has soared from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $7.7 billion in April 2013,” said Tom Clement of Friends of the Earth.
“When we’re dealing with something as fraught with danger as weapons plutonium, there’s no margin for error,” said Ralph Hutchison of Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.
“We are taking plutonium out of warheads that were pointed across the world and we’re moving it. The problem is we need to make sure it’s put in a secure form and in a secure place,” said Gretel Johnson of Mothers against Tennessee River Radiation.
Would TVA Use Converted Nuclear Fuel?
The big thing in nuclear right now is the environmental impact statement released by DOE in May. Oh, it’s big all right — five volumes, 495 pages, 12 pounds. The testimonies above are in its “Comment Response” volumes and it’s very thorough.
This is the latest size-up whether disposal of plutonium from warheads can comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The DOE states generally in its Federal Register posting that its goal is to “dispose of U.S. surplus, weapons-usable plutonium in a safe, secure and environmentally sound manner, by converting such plutonium into proliferation-resistant forms that can never again be readily used in nuclear weapons.”
Tennessee Valley Authority, a giant federal utility and a big presence here in the Southeast, is a likely candidate to use some of that converted plutonium in its nuclear-power plants. A spokesman relayed how it officially has no position on DOE’s drive for peaceful use of plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) in facilities nationwide including TVA’s Browns Ferry (near Decatur, Alabama) and Sequoyah (near Soddy Daisy, Tennessee) nuclear plants.
“TVA’s position remains the same,” said Jim Hopson, manager of public relations. “While we remain a cooperating agency in DOE’s ongoing investigation of the potential of mixed-oxide fuel, TVA has not made any decision regarding the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in its reactors.”
Hopson continued: “The TVA board of directors would ultimately have to make that decision based on, in part, the answers to three key questions:
“First, can MOX fuel be proven to be safe? Second, would the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approve the operating license amendments necessary to approve the use of MOX fuel in our reactors? Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the use of MOX fuel in the best interest of the people of the Tennessee Valley?”
As of March of this year, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile was at 4,760, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, now in its 70th year. That’s down from 31,255 in 1967, according to American Forces Press Service.
Our nation spends $50 billion a year maintaining its nuclear arsenal, writes Richard Rhodes in his 2010 book, The Twilight of the Bombs.
The Nuclear Age Turns 70
Next to enter the public’s consciousness in this unnerving nuclear energy realm — if only for a few days of reflection given the profusion of social media — are the 70th anniversaries of the 1945 bombings of Japan’s Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki August 9.
The atom bomb was born in the 1942-46 Army Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That secret project’s Clinton Engineer Works were driven by hydroelectric power from TVA dams. Though there are larger dams to the west of us in the Blue Ridge that are better known, four dams continue their hard work around Murphy, North Carolina, where I live in retirement. They are the agency’s Hiwassee, Chatuge, Nottely, and Ocoee No. 3 dams, according to a 1948 TVA engineers’ document I read in the National Archives.
Determined to develop an atom bomb before Germany could do so, our government located large industrial facilities in Tennessee. “Labor was plentiful and there were parallel valleys that might contain a large radioactive accident,” the same Richard Rhodes wrote in The Making of the Atomic Bomb in 1986.
The Hiroshima blast using uranium left more than 92,000 persons dead or missing, according to World Book. The Nagasaki blast using plutonium left 40,000 dead or missing.
Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are places where nuclear accidents occurred or a plant had trouble withstanding heavy weather. In 2011, the Nevada congressional delegation, led by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, killed U.S. plans for disposal at Yucca Mountain in their state.
It was an “organic necessity” for the United States to drop the atomic bomb twice in World War II, according to the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
“If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing,” Oppenheimer wrote. “If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values.”
Sachiko McAlhany is National Environmental Policy Act document manager for the Department of Energy. She can sit poker-faced through virulent, quarrelsome public meetings like one I attended in Chattanooga, and then go back to her office in Germantown, Maryland. There she and her staff spend years producing 495-page reports on the aftermath of the genie that was let out of the bottle at Oak Ridge, altering life on the planet.
Tom Bennett of the unincorporated Martins Creek community near Murphy, North Carolina, is a retired Atlanta newsman.