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Nukes on the highway

When nine nuclear fuel rods containing mixed oxides (MOX) of plutonium and uranium arrived secretly by helicopter before dawn at Ontario’s Chalk River Laboratory on Jan. 14, a long-running nuclear controversy did not come to an end.

It was, in fact, only the beginning.

If the so-called Parallex Project – described by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as part of a program to "dispose" of surplus plutonium from American and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals by testing its viability as fuel in nuclear power plants – is ultimately termed a "success," we are looking at the real possibility of an international civilian / governmental industry based on the raw material of nuclear weapons.

If so, the shipment of plutonium, which just happens to be one of the most toxic substances known to humankind, will not be a unique, or even unusual, occurrence. The potential is for dozens or even hundreds of such shipments to eventually find their way to commercial nuclear power plants and MOX production facilities across the nation. Every nuclear cargo will be at risk – of accident, sabotage, attack or diversion.

The nuclear freight that just arrived in Canada traveled more than 3,000 miles across highways from the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico through Michigan. It was then taken by helicopter to evade Native American populations in Ontario vowing to block highways to prevent delivery of the material. The helicopter ploy was the latest act of arrogance and recklessness by governmental agencies in the United States and Canada. Last fall, when the DOE conducted public meetings on the issue across Michigan, its representatives were met by hostile audiences from Sault St. Marie to Lansing to Saginaw. The prospect of bomb-grade material actually rolling through the Great Lakes regions and our back yards created the sort of widespread nuclear controversy not seen locally since a 1993 accident at the Fermi II nuclear plant near Monroe resulted in the dumping of 1.5 million gallons of radioactive water into Lake Erie. And it wasn’t just the public raising concerns. The proposed MOX shipments provoked a response from local and state politicians, U.S. representatives, many of their counterparts in Canada, and fire and law enforcement officials – with good reason.

From a nuclear proliferation standpoint, the very worst thing to do with plutonium is to commercialize it and place it in wide circulation in private industry.

This controversy, however, is only one aspect of the many problems nuclear power technology represents.

Along with shipping MOX cross-country to power plants or other facilities, there’s the ongoing question about where to store more than 100,000 tons of the most radioactive material on the planet – irradiated fuel from America’s 103 operating and 14 decommissioned commercial nuclear reactors. After decades of searching the DOE settled on Yucca Mountain, Nev.

But there are a few problems with this most dangerous of all waste dumps. The desert site is just a stone’s throw from the DOE’s nuclear testing range. The region is prone to earthquakes; a 1992 tremor caused $1 million damage to DOE buildings at the site. And, according to an August 1999 article on the front page of the New York Times’ science section, the mountain where the planned facility will be located has a surprisingly high rate of water filtration, raising the fear that highly radioactive waste could eventually leach into the area’s groundwater.

After you consider all that, think about the logistical, technical and environmental nightmares of moving all of that hot stuff across the country through major population centers. It just might spark public debate about nuclear power that makes the present MOX controversy pale by comparison. The DOE is accepting public comment on Yucca Mountain through February.

Don’t underestimate the power of public opinion. After announcing its intention in 1997 to sell 6,000 tons of radioactive nickel (a metal used for stainless steel and other alloys in everyday consumer products ranging from dinner forks to orthodontia) on the open market, the DOE responded to an outpouring of criticism by announcing this month that it is backing away from the plan.

So don’t assume that a plutonium / electric power economy in the United States and elsewhere is inevitable. There is a definite answer to the question, "Must plutonium become an item of international civilian industrial commerce?" It is a resounding "No!"

Since we’re stuck with this hellish stuff for the next 240,000 years anyway (plutonium is still left over even after the fission process in nuclear reactors), how much better to decide to treat it as a perpetually dangerous radioactive waste product instead of pretending it’s some kind of resource. By encasing it in glass / ceramiclike "logs" and guarding it in perpetuity where it sits, we minimize the application of Murphy’s Law to cargoes that you’d rather not hear about in local traffic reports.