The Bush administration's plan to deploy a high-tech fuel to power a new generation of nuclear reactors worldwide has a potentially explosive problem:
It is too easy for terrorists to grab and turn it into a nuclear bomb.
That's the criticism expressed by nuclear scientists and in several little-known federal studies about the technology underlying the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, unveiled last month. Administration officials tout GNEP for technological breakthroughs that dramatically reduce the nuclear waste from civilian reactors and, at the same time, greatly reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.
Using GNEP's new fuel technology, called UREX-Plus, the United States could safely end its three-decade moratorium on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel intended to keep plutonium from spreading, officials say. "The goal of GNEP is recovery of the energy in a way that doesn't promote weapons," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told a US Senate committee last month.
Knowledgeable critics have said from the outset that the new reactor fuel envisioned in GNEP is not so very hard to turn into bombs. But what has not been widely known is that their views are echoed by the US Department of Energy's own studies. According to a 2004 study conducted for an Energy Department blue-ribbon commission, for instance, the UREX-plus technology was only slightly more "proliferation resistant" - difficult to turn into bombs - than the PUREX process used by other nations. The US has often criticized PUREX for its vulnerability.
"The bottom line is that UREX-plus is not much more proliferation resistant - by their own estimates," says Henry Sokolski, former deputy for nonproliferation policy at the Defense Department in the first Bush administration.
To be proliferation resistant, nuclear material should be so radioactive it would be deadly to handle, nearly impossible to divert without detection, and fiendishly difficult to refine into weapons fuel. UREX-plus falls well short by all three measures, according to federal reports.
For example: Any such reactor fuel should be so radioactive that it would be "self-protecting." The National Academy of Sciences calls for a "spent fuel standard" for plutonium. That means it should be so radioactive - emitting 1,000 rads per hour at arms- length - that anyone trying to steal it would receive a lethal dose of radiation within 30 minutes. It also means it should be as difficult to transport as a 12-foot-long assembly of nuclear fuel rods weighing half a ton or more.
But UREX-plus, as developed and as presented to Congress until recently, would emit less than 1 rad per hour, according to a November report from the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Even using the lower standard for plutonium developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that's 1/100th of the necessary level for self-protection.
The UREX technologies "would still produce a material that is not radioactive enough to deter theft and could still be used to make nuclear weapons," says Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"UREX-plus is just PUREX with lipstick," adds physicist Frank von Hippel, former assistant director of national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology:
Supporters say critiques are outdated
Government scientists say UREX-plus is much better than critics say it is.
"There's only one step where this material has low self- protection, not up to the max, and then it's heavily guarded," says Phillip Finck, deputy associate laboratory director at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., and the administration's top scientific spokesman on UREX. "This process, UREX-plus, is much more proliferation resistant than things developed in the past."
And the Energy Department's 2004 study that rated …