The secretive, corrupt, accident-plagued, taxpayer-subsidized industry that created Hanford’s radioactive nightmare has not died. It was only taking a nap.
Today, while Americans concentrate on Paula Jones, the nuclear processing industry is attempting a quiet comeback. It is lobbying for funds in dark recesses of the congressional budget process.
Why should Americans care? They’ll pay the bills. They’ll face a new risk of nuclear terrorism. And their descendants will have to clean up yet another radioactive mess, exactly like the mess the Cold War left at Hanford.
Ironically, the goal of the current machinations is to dispose of plutonium made at Hanford and extracted from dismantled bombs. But the question is how: Should the plutonium be mixed with contaminants, embedded in glass and entombed? Or should the government build a new generation of factories to dissolve it in a chemical soup, mix it with uranium and fabricate it into fuel pellets for use in civilian nuclear power reactors?
The first method uses known technology and is a straightforward route to permanent disposal.
The second method is riskier and more expensive and would create more jobs for the collapsing nuclear industry. Alas, the U.S. government prefers it.
Seventeen electrical utilities, including the Washington Public Power Supply System, have told the U.S. Energy Department they’d like to use fuel made from weapons plutonium in their reactors. They’d get the fuel for free - although taxpayers would spend a fortune to make it. This might keep reactors going. Otherwise, the marketplace will abandon nukes in favor of cheaper, nonpolluting natural gas turbines.
Reactors that use plutonium fuel are more prone to accidents. Factories that would make this fuel would produce vast quantities of liquid radioactive waste - just like the waste from Hanford’s bomb plants that still defies safe disposal. After the plutonium fuel was used, it, too, would require disposal, like all spent reactor fuel, even though no safe disposal method has yet been found for it.
If the United States does develop manufacturing and reactor technology for plutonium fuel, other nations would use it as well. This would open doors worldwide for plutonium to be extracted, reused, seized and diverted into terror weapons as shipments crisscross the globe.
Our planet’s plutonium has caused enough grief. It ought to be placed in an irretrievable form and laid to rest. To use it as fuel for a risky new industry would be a crime against the future of humankind.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board