Monday, April 11, 2016

Where the Terrorists Have Already Won

In 1978, Jimmy Carter reneged on the opening of a reprocessing plant that was nearing completion in Barnwell, South Carolina. This facility was to take "spent" fuel rods from power reactors owned by the utilities, dissolve them in acid, then separate the uranium and plutonium from the contaminants that would "poison" and eventually stop the chain reaction. The highly radioactive progeny of the energy-producing reactions - amounting to some 1% or 2% of the volume - would be disposed of by any one of a number of perfectly safe methods. The fuel portion would then be reformed into uranium or "MOX" pellets for insertion into fuel assemblies.

Hold on. Could one infer from this that these "spent" fuel elements contain in excess of 90% of their intial fuel? Yes, one could. Is this what we plan to bury under Yucca Mountain? Precisely.

Does this make sense to you? It certainly doesn't to the English, French, Japanese, Russians, and others who think we are absolutely nuts for planning to bury unbelievable amounts of readily obtainable energy. But it made sense to the Carter administration, and even though Reagan reversed the decision, there were no corporate takers who were willing to risk their shareholders' money on a project that could be changed by the whim of a government with a history of caving in to the slightest pseudo-environmentalist pressure. And there would certainly be pressure - since, as we "know," all radiation is dangerous, since any gamma ray could cause cancer... even though the odds against it are 30 quadrillion to one.

What was the reason - excuse, really - that the Carter administration used to stop reprocessing? It was the threat of terrorism. Let's consider briefly the problems from the standpoint of terrorists who are planning a heist of plutonium, with which they intend to make a bomb.