Rachel's Democracy & Health News #866  [Printer-friendly version]
August 3, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In recent months, President Bush has reversed
long-standing U.S. policies, intending to expand nuclear power world-
wide. This inevitably expands the threat from nuclear weapons.]

By Peter Montague

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, such as this one from the New York Times.

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 ("fast reactors") 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-

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

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."