To MOX or Not to MOX

After four years of intense debate, President Bush has apparently decided to override President Carter and Greenpeace and "close the fuel cycle."

Carter had essentially prohibited the "recycling" of "spent" nuclear fuel and required all U.S. electric utilities operating nuclear power plants to charge their customers a monthly fee that was to be handed over to the federal government so the government could dig a really deep grave somewhere out West (in a state with only one or two electoral votes).

Once a deep enough grave had been dug, the owners and operators of the nuclear power plants had to bury all their spent fuel elements – which, from the viewpoint of generating electricity, were still worth nearly as much when spent as they had been when they were brand new – and pay the federal government to stand guard over the grave for the next 10,000 years.

There are several rationales for President Bush to reverse this Carter nuclear power "no-recycling" decision:

Global warming: One rationale is that there may turn out – after all – to be something to this global-warming brouhaha. And if it is somehow connected to the production of carbon dioxide, perhaps we ought to shut down our coal-fired, oil-fired, and gas-fired electricity generating plants and build thousands of nuclear power plants to replace them.

Since we desperately need the electricity, and since nuclear power plants don’t make "greenhouse" gases, we can no longer afford to treat fuel elements that are far from spent as liabilities rather than as assets.

Stifling Yucca Mountain: A second rationale is that if spent fuel is recycled, the highly radioactive "dirty daughters" – with short half-lives – can be chemically separated from the weakly radioactive (long half-lived) unburned fuel. Only the short-lived "dirty daughters" would need to be shipped to Yucca Mountain, and the feds would only have to stand guard over a given shipment for decades, as opposed to 10,000 years for unseparated spent fuel.

Loose nukes: A third rationale is that the Russians are getting rid of their excess weapons-usable plutonium – enough to make about 30,000 nukes – by making plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and generating electricity with all those excess nukes.

The rest of the world was not affected by Jimmy Carter’s decree not to recycle spent fuel, so there is already an established – but barely cost-effective, as there is not yet a shortage of cheap uranium – MOX fuel infrastructure, wherein spent fuel elements of other nations have been converted into MOX and used to generate electricity in Europe, Russia, Japan, and elsewhere.

The effect of the Russians getting rid of all their loose nukes as MOX – which we have pledged to help them do, financially and technically – will be to vastly increase the size (and cost-effectiveness) of this international MOX fuel infrastructure.

Five years ago, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici called for the secretary of energy to develop a "National Spent Nuclear Fuel Strategy."

Domenici said that Congress urgently needed that strategy to determine "whether the spent fuel should be treated as waste, subject to permanent burial" (à la Jimmy Carter), or whether it "should be considered to be an energy resource that is needed to meet future energy requirements."

Five years later, it appears that strategy has been developed.

But if the Bush-Cheney administration decides to essentially establish a barely cost-effective U.S. MOX program in competition with the Russians, the motive may be essentially unrelated to addressing the global warming or Yucca Mountain hysteria.

It may be that Bush-Cheney have realized that a solution to the current Iranian uranium-enrichment "crisis" would be for the Russian nuclear power plants at Bushehr to be fueled from the get-go with MOX fuel.

Because of radiation safety concerns at the facilities, the MOX fuel cycle is essentially run as a "just-in-time" operation. The time interval between the unburned plutonium and uranium still being in a highly radioactive spent-fuel element in storage and its being loaded – as weakly radioactive MOX – into another reactor needs to be held to a few months. That is, spent fuel is not recycled until it is actually needed to make MOX fuel for a date-specific refueling of a specific reactor.

Hence, with Russian MOX-fueled reactors, the need or even desirability of Iran having a uranium-enrichment capability would be obviated.

Bummer!

So much for the gravest threat we have faced since the end of the Cold War.

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Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. — ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.