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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 09, No. 1 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1997, 16 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSPECIAL FOCUS: The World's Forests and Human Health
View the documentPOINT: Modern Timbering Contributes to Forest Fires
View the documentCOUNTERPOINT: Only the Logging Industry Can Save Our Forests
View the documentDid You Know?
View the documentCHERNOBYL UPDATE: Turning Nuclear Swords Into Hazardous Plowshares
View the documentFOOD FOR THOUGHT: A Hopeful Future for the United Nations Under Kofi Annan
View the documentHEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT: Environmental Health Policies: A View From Africa
View the documentGood News
View the documentVoices
View the documentPOINT OF VIEW: Faith and Fear of the Future

CHERNOBYL UPDATE: Turning Nuclear Swords Into Hazardous Plowshares

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty approved by the United Nations General Assembly in September, 1996, was hailed as an advance on behalf of peace. However, treaties that ban nuclear weapons pose a daunting problem to nuclear nations: what does a nation do with its plutonium when it dismantles the warheads. In responding to this immediate issue, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is planing to recommend 1) the making of plutonium/uranium fuel (called mixed oxide fuel - or MOX fuel) to be used by commercial power reactors; and 2) the balance to be immobilized through vitrification - or mixed in molten glass. The goal of both programs, MOX and vitrification, is to render the plutonium unusable for nuclear weapons. Vitrification is a technique just being developed. However, MOX is no less experimental when it comes to putting it in light water reactors that were not designed for it.

MOX would have profound impacts on the operation of civilian nuclear power reactors and the discharges and waste that result. Use of plutonium fuel increases the amount of both plutonium and fission products in both so-called "low-level" and "high-level" radioactive waste. The routine emissions to air and water would also contain a higher level of plutonium and fission products. The nuclear physics of plutonium fission suggests that MOX fuel would accelerate aging of reactor core components - already a factor in early reactor shutdowns. Because of the increased fission products, the irradiated fuel would have a greater heat load, complicating all waste storage and disposal options currently available or contemplated. It would also contain about five times more plutonium than uranium fuel.

The use of MOX fuel has international ramifications in terms of supporting an international "plutonium economy" which would allow reprocessing and essentially turning plutonium into a commodity. Converting military plutonium into a useable civilian product might create a business partnership economically strong enough to dominate the energy industry and effectively eliminate competition by other alternative fuel companies including natural gas. Putting plutonium in American reactors would require national-security-level protection of the reactor site and the transport of the unirradiated fuel, as well as the MOX fuel production sites, since the unirradiated fuel is a proliferation risk. This program would require the building of a new MOX fuel fabrication site, though there have been some suggestions that initially some fuel would be produced by MOX fabrication facilities in Europe and shipped across the Atlantic. Several European nations, most notably France, are actively pushing the US to adopt the MOX option. The US government argues that it is choosing the MOX option in part because of international (especially Russian) support for MOX.

Coupled with the MOX idea is a second idea: the use of one or more civilian reactors to produce tritium for maintaining the remaining nuclear stockpile, or building new nuclear weapons. The proposed cost of maintaining nuclear reactors is greater than their former production cost. Each reactor would have to be relicensed, there could be new public utility commission issues, there certainly would be radioactive waste transportation and storage issues.

It is important for business, military and political leaders of the nations who depend heavily on the nuclear industry to recall that a nuclear explosion in a power plant designed for civilian use in peace time has the same consequences as a nuclear warhead dropped on that civilian population during a war. The intention may be different but the result is the same-if not worse. The Chernobyl explosion in 1986 emitted more radiation than the nuclear bombs dropped at the end of World War II, in 1945, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

SOURCE: Nuclear Information & Resource Service
1424 16th St. NW, Suite 404, Washington, DC 20036
voice (202) 328-0002; fax (202) 462-2183
e-mail: <nirsnet@igc.apc.org>
web: www.nirs.org

RESOURCES: Check out the following Websites (the NIRS Site will be growing in information on MOX) www.nirs.org and Nuclear Control Institute's www.nci.org/nci/ ALSO: dynamite MOX newsletter published by Yurika Ayukawa, Scoville Fellow at Physicians for Social Responsibility available at the NIRS Website, or via e-mail by contacting Yurika <yayukawa@igc.apc.org>.


A Side View of Injection Sites

SOURCES: Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy; A.I. Rybalchenko, M.K. Pimenov, and E.N. Munaev/Scientific Research and Design Institute for Industrial Technology Moscow