Hope you watched the March 21st broadcast of “Hardball!” on MSNBC and CNBC, especially the deep, serious part where Vice President Cheney briefed us on how the ‘rolling blackout’ problem in California came to be — and how long it would take to fix — even if we could get all the Greenies, Luddites, Mugwumps and other globalist friends of Algore to butt out.
They won’t butt out, of course. These are the people who Think Globally and Act Locally. They know that most siting decisions are local and they’ll be there, even if you aren’t, to delay and delay and delay the siting by federal, state and local officials of all refineries, power plants, power transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines, LNG terminals, etc., no matter how desperately they are needed.
Specifically, Cheney estimated that the United States will need to bring on line at least 1,300 new power plants over the next 20 years to have adequate electrical generating capacity. And yet, Cheney noted, there hasn’t been a single power plant built in California in the last ten years because “nobody wants to be able to see a transmission line from their front yard. Nobody wants a gas pipeline through their community. Nobody wants a power plant in their county.”
Cheney also noted that there are no coal-fired power plants being built anywhere in the country and there hasn’t been a nuclear power plant built in the last twenty years. Since the siting process for a coal-fired plant takes about 10 years, and for a nuclear plant even longer, it appears that we are going to have to make do with what we’ve got now for the next ten years. That is, even if we started the siting process for a hundred of those new coal or nuclear power plants this evening, we couldn’t expect to have any of them on line for another ten years. A sobering thought, even if you don’t live in California.
The subject of this column is one of the ‘hardballs’ thrown by Vice President Cheney, who is in charge of developing a comprehensive U.S. energy strategy for the 21st century. His task force has concluded that if we are forced by the intervenors to drastically curtail — for whatever reason — fossil fuel use in this country, the only viable alternative is nuclear power.
Now, as readers of these columns know, before Algore got everyone so excited about global warming and declared war on soccer moms and their SUVs, there already was a powerful driver for the emergence of a new era for nuclear power. The driver was to get rid of ‘loose nukes’.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost everyone has recognized the necessity of assisting the Russians in peacefully disposing of their hundreds of tons of fissile materials — enough Plutonium and Uranium to make about 30,000 nukes. Furthermore, almost everyone has endorsed the Russian disposal concept. The Russians intend to convert all those excess fissile materials into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and burn up all those nukes in power reactors, generating electricity. The consequences of Russian nukes getting loose are such that many of the G-7 countries are willing to provide financial and technical assistance to the Russians to establish their MOX fuel infrastructure.
But, not everyone. Not Clinton-Gore. No MOX fuel cycle for them. From the way Greenpeace and the Clinton-Gore Administration kicked and screamed, you would have thought the Russian MOX cure was worse than the Russian loose nuke disease.
How could Greenpeace think that? Well, they realized that it wouldn’t take very long, once the Russians had established a Russian MOX fuel cycle, for them to have peacefully disposed of the 50 or so tons of Plutonium recovered from dismantled nukes. Once that was gone, what would the Russians then do?
The kind of Plutonium (mostly isotopic Pu-239) we and the Russians have produced for use in nukes is rather difficult and expensive to make. But ordinary power reactors — fueled with Uranium slightly enriched in isotopic U-235 — produce Plutonium almost continuously. In fact, more than a third of the power produced by a reactor fueled with low-enriched (3% isotopic U-235) Uranium is produced by burning — as it is being produced — the Plutonium produced by irradiation of istotopic U-238 Uranium. Since about 97% of the Uranium fuel is isotopic U-238, in an ordinary nuclear reactor, burning U-235 results in some U-238 — which won’t burn — being converted into Plutonium isotopes, which will burn.
After being in the operating reactor for three to four years, the Uranium fuel rods are removed. Though ‘spent,’ the fuel elements still contain about a third of the original isotopic U-235 and an equal amount of Plutonium that has been produced but not yet burned. That is, in terms of its ability to generate power, the spent fuel is still worth two thirds of what it was when it was originally installed in the nuclear power reactor. That Plutonium can be recovered from the spent fuel. And when you consider that the Uranium contained in the spent fuel can be also be recovered and recycled — either re-enriched back to 3% U-235, or the remaining U235 supplemented with Plutonium — a whopping 97% of the ‘spent’ fuel can be re-used.
Now, you might think all that nifty recycling potential would have the Greenies dancing in the streets. Wrong. You see, Greenpeace convinced President Carter that the Plutonium remaining in spent fuel could easily be used by terrorists to produce crude nukes. Almost everyone else in the world disputes that Greenpeace claim, but Jimmy Carter accepted it and decreed that — to prevent nuke proliferation — no U.S. spent fuel could ever be reprocessed. Neither the Plutonium produced or the isotopic U-235 unused in spent fuel could ever be recovered. Jimmy Carter essentially decreed that we would have to throw away — actually, bury in the ground — the 97% of the original Uranium fuel that could be recycled.
The seemingly intractable ‘nuclear waste problem’ we have today is the direct result of Jimmy Carter believing Greenpeace and prohibiting spent fuel reprocessing. After we have realized only a few percent of the fuel’s energy potential, our electric utilities have to turn them over to the feds for burial. But, for the last twenty years, the wonderful folks who caused the problem — who required that our electric utilities bury their valuable spent fuel elements in the ground and required that they pay zillions of dollars over the past twenty years for that burial and the cost of watching over the burial site for the next 10,000 years — have prevented those electric utilities from burying any of them. Those wonderful folks have intervened, time and time again, to prevent the opening of even an interim storage site for all those spent fuel elements.
The wonderful folks that have created the ‘nuclear waste problem,’ and brought you the rolling blackouts, did this because they claim the nuclear proliferation risk from reprocessing spent fuel is too great. And though it may not have been their intention, by denying all U.S. nuclear power plant operators the financial benefits of reprocessing — and by saddling them with the incredibly onerous liability of having tons and tons of highly radioactive spent fuel elements in their backyards that they could not sell, give away, bury or throw away — Jimmy Carter and Greenpeace have effectively killed ‘nuclear power’ in this country.
Well, what about the rest of the world? Surely not every country was saddled in the late 70s with leaders as gullible as Jimmy Carter? You’re right. The rest of the world has been merrily recycling their ‘spent fuel’ elements for more than 30 years.
The Russians are not proposing to do something that has never been done before, or that they don’t know how to do. There are currently 35 commercial nuclear power reactors running on MOX fuel in Europe: 20 in France, 10 in Germany, 3 in Switzerland, and 2 in Belgium. Twice that many, world-wide, are scheduled to be using MOX fuel by 2010 including reactors in Japan and Russia. And if the Russians get their MOX fuel cycle services up and running there could be hundreds of nuclear power plants running on MOX fuel by then.
British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) already provides — and has for decades — a full range of nuclear fuel cycle services, including spent fuel reprocessing, manufacture of new MOX fuel and transportation of both. BNFL has recently bought the ‘nuclear business’ of the European ABB and of our Westinghouse Electric company, both previously vendors of nuclear power reactors. ABB had previously bought the ‘nuclear business’ of another U.S. nuclear power reactor vendor, Combustion Engineering. BNFL’s most modern reprocessing plant, Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp), began operating in 1994 and is expected to operate for at least 25 years. Currently 28 utilities in 9 countries have contracts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel at Thorp.
France’s COGEMA also provides the full range of nuclear fuel cycle services, including uranium re-enrichment and MOX fuel fabrication. COGEMA-La Hague has contracts to reprocess nuclear fuel with about 30 utilities from 7 countries. COGEMA has two MOX fabrication plants in operation in operation in France — Cadarache and MELOX — and one in Belgium at Dessel, operated by Belgonucleaire.
Now, here is where it gets weird. Clinton-Gore talked Russia into the US-IAEA-Trilateral Agreement, wherein the U.S. and Russia each committed to ‘transparently’ and permanently dispose of 34 tons of weapons-useable Plutonium under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Russians, as noted above, intend to make MOX out their entire 34 tons and Clinton-Gore agreed to assist them financially and technically. But Clinton-Gore made no effort for several years after concluding the Trilateral Agreement to get Congress to provide the money to honor that agreement.
In an effort to get the Russians to not make MOX — or to make it only with the Plutonium recovered from their nukes and forgo the reprocessing of spent fuel to make MOX in future years — Clinton-Gore agreed to make MOX of some small fraction of our 34 tons of weapons grade Plutonium, if the Russians would consider burying some of theirs. Perhaps Clinton-Gore thought that if we never delivered on our promise to help them with their MOX cycle, maybe they would give up and bury all their Plutonium like we intended to bury almost all of ours.
We agreed to build a small U.S. plant to make the small amount of MOX fuel, but once we had fabricated that small amount of MOX fuel, Clinton-Gore intended to completely dismantle the little MOX plant and plant grass where it had been.
Here’s the weird part. On March 22, 1999, the U.S Department of Energy announced that it had hired COGEMA to tell us how to do all that. That is, Clinton-Gore hired the Europeans to teach us how to build and operate a plant to fabricate MOX fuel. So much for us providing technical assistance to the Russians. So much for our being world leaders in nuclear energy technology. We may not even be world leaders when it comes to nuclear weapons technology. Not only have we not built a new nuclear power plant in the last twenty years, it has been almost that long since we fielded a new nuke weapon.
Now, we know that the Pakistanis and the Indians have fielded new nuke weapons in the past several years and the Indians and Iranians are building new nuclear power plants. It makes you wonder — after two doses of Clinton-Gore and one of Jimmy Carter — just who we might be capable of leading, doesn’t it?