Nukes Rising

President Bush has said many times that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to U.S. security, particularly nuclear weapons in the hands of hostile groups, like Al Qaeda, or unstable governments.

The tight connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants is well-understood, unmistakable and unavoidable. People who want to build nuclear weapons almost always start by building a nuclear power plant. Israel developed a nuclear arsenal starting with components and know-how provided by a nuclear power plant. India did the same. So did India’s chief rival, Pakistan. So did India’s other major rival, China. So did North Korea, using reactors provided by China and by Switzerland. Iraq was building the Osiraq nuclear power plant until 1981 when Israel blew it to smithereens to prevent the next logical step, an Iraqi A-bomb. Iran is reportedly heading down this same path now, starting with nuclear reactors provided by our ally, Russia.

Despite the clear, tight connection between nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, and despite the President’s oft-repeated warning that the greatest threat to our national security is an atomic bomb in the wrong hands, the President is now taking very aggressive steps to expand the number of nuclear power plants worldwide.

In February, Mr. Bush announced a major new U.S. program to sell nuclear power plants all around the world. The President’s program is called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). An important first step in the GNEP is to build many more nuclear power plants in the U.S. — a “nuclear renaissance,” as it is being called in nuclear industry puff pieces..

To build more nuclear plants in the U.S., the problem of nuclear waste disposal must be solved and the GNEP offers two ways to do this, a long term solution and a short term solution.

The problem is highly-radioactive reactor fuel. To fuel a reactor, slightly-enriched uranium is formed into pellets, which are then packed into long rods. When these rods are placed close to each other in the core of a reactor, the uranium in the rods undergoes a controlled chain reaction, producing heat plus new “fission products” that are intensely radioactive, including plutonium. Eventually these unwanted fission products “poison” the chain reaction and the fuel must be withdrawn from the reactor and replaced. The poisoned fuel rods become “high level radioactive waste” and they must be held securely for upwards of 240,000 years. Because our species, homo sapiens, has only been on the planet for roughly 100,000 years, we have no experience handling long-lived, highly-dangerous problems of this nature. We are flying blind. Scientists have been working on the nuclear waste problem since 1940; however, after 66 years of intense effort, there is still no satisfactory solution in sight.

The current plan for handling these wastes is to bury them in a hole in the ground beneath the Nevada desert at a place called Yucca Mountain. Unfortunately, the Yucca Mountain waste dump has been mired in problems, including falsification of data by scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey. The Yucca Mountain dump was supposed to open in 1998, but the government now says there is no way to estimate when the site will be opened because of the many problems it has encountered. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy now acknowledges that by 2010 — 4 years from now — the existing nuclear power plants in the U.S. will have produced enough high-level waste to fill the Yucca Mountain dump completely. Yucca Mountain will need to be expanded, or a second high-level waste dump will have to be built, and the government has not announced any plans for a second waste dump. Without some solution to this waste problem, nuclear power cannot readily expand in the U.S.

A group of private utilities calling itself Private Fuel Storage (PFS) has devised a solution to the high-level waste problem — “temporary” storage of up to 100 years on Goshute Indian land in Skull Valley, Utah. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to PFS in March, but the State of Utah is not enthusiastic about the project, to put it mildly, and numerous stumbling blocks remain, preventing PFS from accepting any wastes.

So how can the domestic U.S nuclear industry expand?

The long-term solution to the problem of irradiated reactor fuel is embodied in President Bush’s GNEP plan — to develop an entirely new set of machines and processes called an ” advanced fuel cycle” to “reprocess” and “recycle” the irradiated reactor fuel, and reduce the volume of waste produced by each nuclear power plant, using complex machines and technologies that do not exist today. At a Congressional hearing on the “advanced fuel cycle” in April, members of Congress estimated that the GNEP could cost upwards of $200 billion. “This would put GNEP in the realm of the U.S. space program in terms of long-term cost,” said Representative Al Green (D-Tex.). It seems clear that Mr. Bush and his friends at General Electric and Westinghouse — the only U.S. firms that still manufacture nuclear power plants — are serious about tapping the taxpayer in a major way to make this global business venture work for them.

Obviously an expensive and experimental program of this nature can expect to encounter significant delays (not to mention cost overruns). Even optimistic estimates have the first test machines starting to operate around 2014 to 2019, so this will not solve the growing high- level waste problem, which is already preventing the U.S. nuclear industry from expanding.

So some other short-term solution is needed.

As luck would have it, the President’s GNEP provides the solution. As a first step toward implementing GNEP, President Bush announced July 8 that he has decided to permit “extensive U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia for the first time… reversing decades of bipartisan policy,” the Washington Post reported.

The Post noted that Mr. Bush had resisted such a move for years, insisting that Russia first stop building a nuclear power station for Iran near the Persian Gulf. But the administration has changed its mind, now viewing Mr. Putin, Russia’s leader, as a “more constructive partner” in trying to pressure Iran to abandon plans for making A- bombs.

Now here’s the important part: The Post pointed out that, a nuclear cooperation agreement would clear the way for Russia to import and store thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from U.S.-supplied reactors around the world. The Post says this is a critical component of Mr. Bush’s plan to spread civilian nuclear energy to power-hungry countries everywhere on earth because Russia would provide a place to send the used radioactive material. Under this scenario, it doesn’t matter if the long-term solution (“fast reactors” and all the rest) ever develops — Russia will become the world’s permanent waste dump.

The Post noted that some people have criticized Russia’s plan to turn itself into the world’s nuclear waste dump because Russia has a miserable record of nuclear accidents and horrendous widespread contamination from nuclear wastes. Its transportation network is antiquated and inadequate for moving vast quantities of radioactive material. And the country has not fully secured the nuclear facilities it already has against theft or accidents. Not to mention that it has recently been supplying nuclear technology to Iran.

Never mind all that. The Post summarizes: Mr. Bush’s new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership envisions promoting civilian nuclear power around the world and eventually finding a way to reprocess spent fuel without the danger of leaving behind material that could be used for bombs. Until such technology is developed, Mr. Bush needs someplace to store the spent fuel from overseas, and Russia is the only volunteer.

So there you have it. Mr. Bush has a grand plan for placing nuclear power plants around the globe in every country that wants one. There used to be a major hurdle blocking such proliferation of A-plants, called the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (“Proliferation” is the official term for spreading A-bomb-making capabilities from country to country.) Countries that want nuclear power plants used to have to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), promising not to make any nuclear weapons. The NPT was standing in the way of Mr. Bush’s grand plan for a nuke in every country that wants one, so earlier this year he quashed the NPT with great fanfare by announcing that he was ignoring it. He signed a deal providing U.S. nuclear power technology to India — a nation that has pointedly never signed the NPT. As the New York Times observed, the President has turned the NPT ” into Swiss cheese.” In direct violation of the NPT, India will now receive nuclear fuel from the U.S., freeing India’s home-made nuclear fuel for diversion into A-bombs — the very situation the NPT was designed to avoid.

So the skids are now fully-greased for Mr. Bush’s grand global plan for a nuke plant in every garage. The non-proliferation treaty is effectively dead, and the problem of high-level waste has been “solved” by arranging for it all to be sent to Russia. To be sure, some details remain to be worked out, but the outlines of the President’s Grand Nuclear Plan are now in place.

Only one major question remains. Why would President Bush want to spread nuclear power plants — and thus the very real threat of nuclear weapons — around the world?

As we search for an answer to this perplexing question, rational thought fails us, so we turn instead to dark humor. On July 19, Mike Peters, the Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News ran a cartoon of three Presidential figures — Eisenhower, Nixon, and George W. Bush. The banner above the three reads, “Republican Campaign Slogans.” On his chest, Mr. Eisenhower has the words, “I like Ike.” Mr. Nixon’s slogan is, “Four More Years.” George Bush’s slogan is “WW III.”

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of the indispensable Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at:



Peter Montague is a fellow with the Science & Environmental Health Network, living in New Jersey.