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Arms Race Fallout Continues To Drop

Thu., Dec. 19, 1996, midnight

It took just a half-century to manufacture enough fuel to incinerate life on our planet. Now, only a decade after the production of plutonium ceased, the same nation that launched the nuclear arms race is leading the way to dismantle the weapons and dispose of their fuel.

That’s a move worth applauding.

But here in Eastern Washington, we have been more than bystanders to the nuclear weapons program. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is radioactive proof of technology’s capacity to run amok. Fifty years of arrogant nuclear engineering scattered Eastern Washington with fallout and with the contaminated remains of old bomb factories. Plus, the Cold-War culture that plutonium production left behind still inspires occasional persecution of Hanford whistleblowers.

So when the U.S. Energy Department announced its plutonium disposal strategy, this region had good reason to put the standing ovation on hold.

Sure, it’s important, to history and to our region, to convert weapons plutonium into a form that never could fuel a doomsday bomb again. Hanford’s old bomb-plant residues form 11 percent of the nation’s plutonium stockpile. Much of the rest is in Texas, where warheads are being dismantled.

The Energy Department’s plan calls for two disposal methods, to be pursued simultaneously.

One, likely to attract comparatively little opposition, involves contaminating and oxidizing the plutonium to make it unsuitable for a weapon and unattractive to thieves, then embedding it in glass or ceramic for permanent underground disposal.

The other option involves mixing the plutonium with uranium, then using it as fuel in electricity-generating reactors. However, as price competition emerges among electrical utilities, nuclear reactors are fast becoming an uneconomical power source. Why pursue a technology the marketplace is rejecting, when few if any utilities would want the political hassles and risks that go with plutonium fuel? The spent fuel from this process still would be lethal, still would contain plutonium, still would require stabilization and permanent underground disposal.

Hanford is a candidate site for the construction of factories both options will need. But the unsettling question isn’t whether this important work should occur there. Rather, it’s what should occur.

Why pursue the second option? Partly because Russia wants to use its plutonium as reactor fuel and by a tortured process of foreign-policy logic, the U.S. government felt it therefore must do the same.

Copy-the-Russians logic, and overconfidence in engineers, were the very essence of the Cold War’s mistakes. Haven’t we learned?

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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