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
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
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
"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 UREX-plus only
slightly above PUREX "should be performed again in view of the real
technological changes since then," he adds. …