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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Plutonium Reprocessing

Air Date: Week of September 28, 2001

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Vice President Cheney's energy plan calls for renewed research into reprocessing nuclear power plant waste, but experts say the reprocessed material can also be used to make nuclear bombs. Princeton professor Frank von Hippel discusses the security risks with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As America rethinks its national security in the wake of September 11th, some of the key questions involve nuclear power plants. An explosive breach in a reactor containment vessel could result in the spread of dangerous radiation over hundreds of square miles. And a common method of dealing with nuclear power plant waste creates plutonium, which can easily be made into nuclear bombs. That method is called reprocessing, and while it is used in Europe and Japan, for years the U.S. has declined to do it, saying the plutonium could fall into the wrong hands.

But the current White House energy plan now calls for more research into reusing plutonium. Writing in the latest edition of Science magazine Princeton physicist Frank von Hipple says security risks are only part of the problem of recycling nuclear waste.

VON HIPPEL: The spent fuel, that is, the fuel after it's been irradiated, is full of fission products, a whole zoo of radioactive species which emit very penetrating gamma radiation. So, that in fact if you were a few feet away from this spent fuel after, even 50 years after it's discharged, you could get a lethal radiation dose within tens of minutes. And so it has to be stored inside a very heavy shielding, a foot or more of concrete and steel, in order for people to work around it. But once it's separated, it's only a hazard if you inhale it. And so, if you have a good, tightly sealed container of plutonium, then you can safely carry it around and no way a terrorist or some kind of thief who'd sell it to God knows who could steal it and carry it off very easily.

CURWOOD: What's the danger with this stuff?

VON HIPPEL: Well, the danger is that plutonium not only has a fuel value but it's actually nuclear weapons materials. And this problem of trying to commercialize a nuclear weapons material as a fuel, we realized what the implications of it were, only fully when after India used this process, which we had provided to them for civilian purposes, to separate out the plutonium for their so-called peaceful nuclear test, in 1974.

CURWOOD: Now, how much of this plutonium that's been reprocessed from power plant uranium, how much of it already exists in the world?

VON HIPPEL: In Europe and Russia, Western Europe and Russia mostly, a little, some in Japan as well, there's about 200 tons, which is equivalent of about, it could be made into more than 25,000 nuclear weapons.

CURWOOD: How much of a security risk is this stuff?

VON HIPPEL: It depends on which country it's in. When, in 1994, I was working in the White House I went to visit the Russian plutonium, because we were worried about the security of Russia's plutonium stocks. I went to a warehouse which had 30 tons of this stored in a building, a 50-year-old warehouse, which was secured at that time only by a padlock.

CURWOOD: Once a terrorist gets a hold of plutonium, let's say reprocessed from a nuclear power plant, what would they have to do to make a bomb out of it?

VON HIPPEL: Well, this plutonium in the Russian facility and in most places is in the form of a plutonium oxide. They'd have to turn it into a metal. In the case of the Nagasaki bomb the metal was in the form of a sphere and then that sphere was surrounded by high explosive around it. And so when the detonators went off the plutonium was actually crushed into a higher density and at that higher density the mass became super critical--that is, it would sustain an explosive neutron chain reaction.

CURWOOD: How much of an education would someone need to be able to make this bomb? A sophisticated nuclear physicist, or a grad student, or what?

VON HIPPEL: There's been an argument about whether a sub-national group could pull together the skills necessary to do this. You'd need to understand some plutonium chemistry; you'd need to understand some physics. The argument never was decisively settled, but I guess I'm of the school that would rather not find out whether a non-governmental group could do this.

CURWOOD: Now, the United States stopped research into reprocessing uranium fuel from power plants into plutonium back in, what, the 1970s.

VON HIPPEL: In the '70s, that's right, we ended the attempt to commercialize this technology, after India's nuclear test.

CURWOOD: Vice-president Richard Cheney's energy plan now calls for new research into reprocessing this type of fuel. What do you think of this?

VON HIPPEL: Well, I think it would be a terrible mistake. I don't really worry that this would lead to commercialization of this reprocessing, because it's turned out to be very expensive and the people who've gotten into this business regret it a lot and would like to get out of it as fast as they can. But, it does undercut our arguments to encourage other people to accelerate the end of their involvement in reprocessing plutonium separation.

CURWOOD: But this research would be a different kind of processing, isn't it? I'm told it's pyro-processing, I guess a heat process, that leaves the reprocessed fuel somewhat radioactive so it's maybe a little bit easier to carry but it's not something you'd want to put in the back of the trunk of your car and carry around with you.

VON HIPPEL: Well, as designed, this process would not separate out the clean plutonium that the current civilian processes separate out, and to that degree it would be better. But it wouldn't be better than leaving the plutonium unseparated in the first place. And if there's no reason to do it, there's no environmental reason to do it, it's counterproductive in terms of it brings you 90% of the way or more to clean plutonium, and it's a process that's so costly that the utilities would never invest in it at this point. The question is, why do R. & D. on this?

CURWOOD: Frank von Hippel is an expert in nuclear arms control and energy at Princeton Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Thanks for speaking with us, Professor von Hippel.

VON HIPPEL: My pleasure.



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