The New York Times is proving that, when it comes to nuclear power, it isn't a one-note newspaper. Not every anti-nuclear story has to be written by Matt Wald. The paper has versatility -- this time reporters Jo Becker and William J. Broad get into it.
"Doubts Growing About U.S. Plan for Plutonium," said the page-one, column-one headline yesterday. Whose doubts? Well, it turns out they all belong to Edwin Lyman, resident lamenter at the Union for Concerned Scientists who has nothing but doubts about nuclear. Lyman is a lugubrious presence at every nuclear event in Washington, ruing that the technology was ever invented and predicting gloom and doom to all if it is pursued. Nothing new there.
What's news is that Lyman -- and ipso facto, the Times -- are using the revival of anti-nuclear sentiment after Fukushima to set their sites on a grand prize, the weapons reprocessing plant now under construction in South Carolina.
"Eleven years after the government awarded a construction contract, the cost of the project has soared to nearly $5 billion," moans the Times. "The vast concrete and steel structure is a half-finished hulk, and the government has yet to find a single customer, despite offers of lucrative subsidies. Now, the nuclear crisis in Japan has intensified a long-running conflict over the project's rationale.… [C]ritics say there is an increasing likelihood that the South Carolina project will fail to go forward and will become what a leading opponent, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls a 'plant to nowhere.' That would leave the United States without a clear path for the disposal of its surplus plutonium." (Lyman is in fact the only opponent mentioned in the story.)
No such yarn would be complete without a scandal and Lyman has one. It involves former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.
"A cheaper alternative, encasing [the plutonium] in glass, was canceled in 2002 by President George W. Bush's administration," continues the report. "The energy secretary at the time, Spencer Abraham, is now the non-executive chairman of the American arm of Areva, a French company that is the world's largest mox producer and is primarily responsible for building the South Carolina plant." (MOX stands for "mixed oxide fuel," a blend of plutonium and uranium that can be burned in commercial reactors. For some reason the Times can't bring itself to capitalize the term.)
So here's what's really going on. "Nuclear waste," i.e., spent fuel rods, can be dealt with in one of three ways: 1) it can be left sitting around at reactor in storage pools or dry casks, the former creating a even greater hazard than the reactor itself, as proved at Fukushima; 2) it can be "vitrified" -- encased in glass -- and stored underground somewhere, such as Yucca Mountain, or 3) it can be reprocessed into a MOX and used as fuel in other commercial reactors. The MOX alternative is particularly attractive because: a) it creates a useful commodity, b) it reduces volume by 95 percent so the remainder can be easily reposited, and 3) it gets rid of plutonium, once and for all, so it can never be used to make nuclear bombs. Most people in the industry prefer reprocessing.
Unfortunately, back in the 1970s, liberals and Democrats became paranoid about nuclear recycling and convinced themselves that if we isolated plutonium in a reprocessing plant somewhere, someone would steal it to make a bomb. Ted Taylor, the repentant 1950s bomb designer who dreamed up this scenario, predicted that by the 1990s, reprocessing would lead to hundreds of nuclear explosions a year in American cities. President Carter took all this seriously and banned reprocessing. As a result, we have Yucca Mountain. France went right ahead with reprocessing. It sends MOX fuel to Japan and stores all the remaining "waste" beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague. No one has ever stolen any plutonium.
All this made good Cold War melodrama, but the Fall of the Berlin Wall uncovered its glaring flaw. Instead of just spent fuel, Russia and the U.S. now found themselves loaded with huge quantities of bomb material -- both highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Rather than let it sit around, both countries decided to do something about it.
In 1992, Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn struck a treaty with the new Russian government whereby Russia would send its highly enriched uranium to France, where it would be "blended down" to reactor grade and shipped off to American power plants. For 19 years the program has provided half our uranium, so that one of every ten light bulbs in America is powered by a former Soviet weapon. It's one of the most extraordinary swords-into-ploughshares efforts in history, although nobody seems to care very much. (The treaty will end in 2014.)
But that still left the plutonium. So in 1999 the Clinton Administration struck another deal with Russia whereby both countries would each rid themselves of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The hope was to reprocess it into MOX, but nuclear scientists reported back to the Clinton Administration that nine tons of our plutonium was contaminated and could not be recycled. So instead we agreed to reprocess the good 25 tons and vitrify the other nine. The Russians, however, were wary of vitrification. Their scientists believed the process could be reversed and somebody could eventually recover the plutonium. They had developed reprocessing and decided to recycle all 34 tons. The deal was closed in 1999. Since Areva, the French nuclear giant, was the only Western corporation that knew the technology, it got the contract to build the Savannah plant.
All this happened before Abraham arrived as President Bush's new Energy Secretary in 2001. (Complete disclosure: I co-authored Abraham's recent book Lights Out! Everything reported here, however, was told to the New York Times. They just didn't see fit to print it.) "By the time I got in, the scientists had come back and said they had developed a way of reprocessing the nine tons of contaminated plutonium after all," Abraham says. "So it became a question of whether to reprocess 25 tons and vitrify the other nine, or reprocess it all. We figured it would be too expensive to do both, since we'd have to build two separate facilities. The Russians were still very set on reprocessing so we decided in order not to jeopardize the agreement, we'd do all reprocessing as well. That's why we dropped vitrification."
And that's the sum and substance of the "scandal" hatched in the brains of the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was enough, however, to make the front page of The New York Times. Abraham did take a job with Areva a year after leaving his Secretary's job in 2005, but all was done in complete accordance with federal law.
So what are Lyman and the Union of Concerned Scientists concerned about? Do they want to get rid of 68 tons of potential bomb material or would they rather see it sitting around waiting to be pilfered? And if they're against reprocessing, does that mean they are in favor of vitrification? Once you've vitrified, after all, you still have to get rid of the stuff. You can't just leave it sitting around. Does that mean UCS is in favor of Yucca Mountain? Go ask them.
No, what UCS and other nuclear opponents are really concerned about is that reprocessing might work. That's the really dangerous part. In fact, we already know it works. France, Canada, Britain, Russia, Japan and India are all doing it to one degree or another. What UCS, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council are afraid of is that Americans might find out. They make a living running around proclaiming, "Reprocessing in France is a failure!" "It only makes things worse!" "You end up with more waste than when you started." (They arrive at this by refusing to distinguish between high-level and low-level waste, the truly dangerous material and stuff that can be buried in landfills.)
What terrifies anti-nuclear crusaders is that Savannah River might prove successful. And they are right, because if the weapons-recycling program works in South Carolina, it will probably be a prelude to the full-scale reprocessing of spent reactor fuel. And if we start processing spent fuel, then the problem of "What do we do with the waste?" will disappear and there will be almost nothing left with which to scare the public and convince it that nuclear is an impossible technology.
That's why UCS is using Fukushima to open up a new front against the plant already half-finished at Savannah River. And what better place to start than with a couple of willing reporters at the New York Times?