Letter to the Editor: From Weapons to Power Plant Fuel

From Weapons to Power Plant Fuel
By James (Jim) W. Hall
District 43 State Representative and Republican candidate
Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties

For several weeks, citizens in New Mexico have had the opportunity to comment on a Department of Energy plan that would take plutonium from decommissioned U.S. nuclear weapons and convert it to material that would generate electricity in nuclear reactors.

A key element of this plan would take place at the world’s most capable and secure facility for plutonium, Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Scientists at Los Alamos have been proving that this process works for years. Last year, the program, called ARIES, successfully converted plutonium from weapons into 240 kilograms of plutonium oxide. That material can no longer be used for nuclear weapons.

Under current arms treaties, the U.S. is decommissioning and taking apart nuclear weapons. Many more will be disassembled in the coming years.

The plutonium from these weapons does not go away. The nation has a responsibility to safely and securely dispose of it. Over time, this process of converting weapons-grade plutonium to low grade plutonium oxide that can be used in nuclear reactors will greatly reduce the amount of plutonium.

Los Alamos has the expertise and facilities to safely complete this mission. It is already occurring here on a smaller scale. The responsibility is not all on Los Alamos–other DOE facilities play a role in using the oxide to make fuel for reactors.

An American company and Areva (a French Company with considerable experience in converting low grade plutonium to reactor fuel) are building a $5B plant at Savannah River to make such fuel rods from a mixture of Uranium and low-grade plutonium (MOX).

Note that every credible scientific and technical organization in the world that has closely examined this issue has endorsed the use of MOX fuel technologies for this purpose and MOX fuel is widely used in nuclear reactors around the world.

The DOE’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement says environmental and public health impacts of this plan are non-existent or miniscule.

Many elements of the ARIES process at Los Alamos are robotic, and the product that is produced meets the demanding requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Meanwhile, during a time when any job is precious, the plan could bring between 120 and 300 jobs, including construction and operations positions. The document estimates further positive indirect economic impacts in the region.

I encourage you to read the document and submit comments at http://nnsa.energy.gov/aboutus/ouroperations/generalcounsel/nepaoverview/nepa/spdsupplementaleis .

This plan achieves two goals: it takes weapons grade plutonium “off the table” and uses it in power plants that emit no greenhouse gases.