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Labs look at recycling weapons-grade plutonium for energy
Scripps Howard News Service


November 07, 2006

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Finding a way to get rid of 34 tons of extra weapons-grade plutonium poses an interesting challenge.

The United States and Russia - under an arms reduction treaty - can't just drop it off at the dump or toss it in the garbage.

And the people who might want to take it off their hands - say, North Korea and Iran - probably wouldn't do anything nice with it.





One option in the United States is to carefully treat it, then store it at the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, if it ever opens.

Or, if you're one of New Mexico's national laboratories, you can look at doing something even stranger with it - recycling it into commercial power.

The United States and Russia cleared a major diplomatic hurdle in September that gets both closer to getting rid of the deadly material through recycling. The two countries agreed on liability protection for the United States so it can help Russia with its part of the equation.

Both countries have been working on efforts to use plutonium to create a recycled nuclear fuel called MOX, or mixed oxide, which can power commercial nuclear plants. But the programs have been stalled for the past several years because there are risks involved and there was no liability agreement to protect either country in case something went wrong with the recycled product, said Randall Erickson, former program manager at the nuclear nonproliferation program office at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Since the early 1990s, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories have been working on various aspects of making MOX a reality in the United States.

It's tricky, because you have to keep the material out of the wrong hands and you have to tweak it before it can be used in commercial power reactors.

Still, Erickson said he appreciates the ironic twist of turning material for nuclear bombs into something more positive.

"Somebody coined the term that we're taking megatons of nuclear weapons materials and turning it into megawatts to light the cities," Erickson said.

The 34 tons could power a nuclear plant for more than 34 years, he said.

Not everyone agrees that turning bomb materials into fuel is a good idea, including the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff member.

"On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, but if you start looking at it in any detail, you realize it can't fulfill that promise," Lyman said. "When you use plutonium in a light-water (power) reactor, there are characteristics that increase the likelihood of certain accidents."

That could include uncontrollable chain reactions leading to a Chernobyl-like accident, Lyman said.

Los Alamos scientists, however, say they've found a mixture of one-third plutonium and two-thirds uranium will work in conventional power plants without damaging them, Erickson said.

Los Alamos has been testing recycled fuel in France as a first step in the U.S. program. The French purified the unclassified combination of plutonium and uranium in 2004 and 2005 and turned it into fuel for a reactor in South Carolina.

That reactor has been test-burning the fuel since summer 2005, Erickson said.

"Everything is performing as they anticipated," he said. "In truth, this technology was not a major leap."

That doesn't mean the plutonium is completely secure, Lyman argued.

"There's an issue about whether reactor sites will have to increase security because of the threat of fuel being stolen," Lyman said.

Also, plutonium fuel creates different nuclear byproducts as it breaks down and it burns hotter than uranium, so it will put more stress on a conventional power plant system, Lyman said.

"You just don't want to do anything to increase the risks," Lyman said. "The MOX program has always been the more dangerous, riskier option."

Either way, the United States and Russia are years away from actually burning the 34 tons of plutonium in commercial reactors, Erickson said.

After the test is finished, the United States will have to build its own MOX fuel fabrication facility and a facility to take the weapons-grade plutonium and break it down into a powder. Those facilities are slated for the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Erickson said.


Contact Sue Vorenberg of The Tribune in Albuquerque, N.M., at
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