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WILLIAM TUCKER: Living in the Nuclear Past

By William Tucker

If you want to see a perfect example of a country living in its past while being upstaged by an upstart country living for the future, take a look at the negotiations going on right now between the United States and South Korea over the renewal of the nuclear fuel treaty that expires next year.

To get a little perspective, look at the accompanying picture.  That’s the foundation being laid for the containment structure in the first of four reactors that Kepco, the Korean nuclear company, is building for the United Arab Emirates.  They won the $20 billion contract by outbidding Westinghouse and Areva, who have been the world’s leading nuclear companies for the past 20 years.  

How long will it be before anyone builds something of these dimensions in the United States?  The Vogtle plant, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in February 2012, is a Westinghouse AP1000.  It is scheduled for completion by 2017 but probably won’t make it until at least 2020.  China just completed the world’s first AP1000 and will probably have four more built by 2020.  By the it will be marketing its own version as well.  Kepco’s reactor is an APR1400, bigger than anything ever built in China or the United States.  It was started in 2011 and is on schedule to be completed in 2017.  

So what’s happening in those negotiations?  Well, the United States, which until 2012 hadn’t licensed a new reactor in 40 years, is telling South Korea, which has emerged as the world leader in nuclear construction, that it can’t reprocess its own nuclear fuel.  Instead, it has to leave it sitting around in storage pools the way we do.  Why?  Because back in the 1970s, when the treaty was first signed, we decided that the way to prevent the rest of the world from getting nuclear weapons was to stop processing our own spent fuel.  The strategy proved to be wildly off the mark, but we haven’t changed our minds since.  North Korea developing its own weapon, Iran enriching uranium, France’s development of a complete fuel reprocessing cycle – nothing has disabused us of the notion that we are barring the door to worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons by preventing ourselves and others from reprocessing spent fuel.

How did this misapprehension come about?  Well, you have to go back to 1974, when India had just used a Candu reactor given to them by Canada to extract plutonium and build a nuclear bomb.  About the same time, John McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker, met a fellow Princeton resident named Ted Taylor, who had designed battlefield nuclear weapons for the Army in the 1950s.  A bit of an eccentric, Taylor had become convinced that if he could build a nuclear weapon in his garage, anyone could.  He began to imagine domestic terrorists groups building such bombs and setting them off in American cities.  “I think we have to live with the expectation that once very four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place that will kill a lot of people,” Taylor told McPhee in 1972.  “I can imagine – in the worst situation – hundreds of explosions a year.”  Where would they get the plutonium?  By stealing it from American reprocessing plants.

McPhee packaged all this into a New Yorker series that became The Curve of Binding Energy.  The book still sells well on Amazon.  Jimmy Carter bought the whole idea and defunded the Clinch River Breeder, which was designed to burn recycled material.  A consortium of companies that had invested $250 million in the Barnwell reprocessing plant in South Carolina walked away from the project – and that’s where we stand today.  In the process, we’ve managed to do is create a so-called problem of “nuclear waste.”

Meanwhile France went ahead with the technology and has complete reprocessing.  It was exporting MOX fuel to Japan before Fukushima and stores all 50 years of material that can’t be reprocessed into something useful beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague.  No one has yet stolen any plutonium.

So why can’t we at least admit we were wrong about reprocessing?  The problem is Washington is full of people who can’t accept America’s diminishing role in the world of energy.  My favorite example occurred a few months ago when Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Ed Markey announced they were going to block the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) from buying Nexen, a Canadian company.  (They didn’t.)   Or how about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refusing to license Calvert Cliffs III because the consortium is 60 percent owned by Areva, a French company.  Are they afraid France might steal our nuclear secrets?   Yet somehow we continue to convince ourselves that if we allow someone somewhere to reprocess, the world will quickly be bristling with nuclear weapons.  

Of course it’s alright for us to pile up spent fuel rods in this country.  We’ve got Yucca Mountain and the WIPP project in New Mexico plus dozens of waste pools and dry cask storage sites around the country.  But South Korea is a country the size of Virginia with 50 million people and it doesn’t have that luxury.  Its storage facilities are already 70 percent full and they want to build 11 new reactors.  

So what’s going to happen?  The 1974 treaty expires next year and must be renewed.  If the Koreans won’t accept our terms, they risk losing their supply of enriched uranium.  But there are plenty of other potential sources around the globe.  Canada mines 25 percent of the world’s uranium, Australia 21 percent, Kazakhstan   16 percent and the Russians 8 percent.  We produce 4 percent.  France, Germany, China, Pakistan, India, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and a few others all have enrichment facilities.  Will one of them make an offer?  Don’t be surprised if they do.

The Koreans are already highly insulted and say we’re treating them criminals by not trusting them to enrich their own uranium and reprocess their own wastes.  Will we succeed in driving them into the arms of Russia or Pakistan?  It all comes from living in the past and thinking that everyone else is as intimidated by nuclear technology as we are.