Sixty years ago this December, President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned a dangerous situation around. In an address to the U.N. General Assembly at the height of the Cold War, he made a commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
That commitment now is being threatened by activists who oppose building a storage depository for nuclear waste and by energy policies that favor any alternative to fossil fuels except a nuclear one.
The goal of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” vision should be evident. Currently, 68 nuclear power plants are being built around the world, according to the World Nuclear Association. An additional 150 are in the planning stage, and an additional 340 have been proposed.
All of this is in addition to the 437 nuclear plants currently in operation, including 104 in the United States. Overall, nuclear power supplies 12.3 percent of the world’s electricity, and it’s the largest source of carbon-free energy.
Since Eisenhower’s historic address to the United Nations, the United States and Russia reached an agreement to dispose of surplus fissionable materials – weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. In one of history’s greatest disarmament successes, 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium have been removed from Russian warheads once aimed at U.S. cities.
The U.S.-Russia agreement also called for each country to eliminate 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, another material used in nuclear warheads, to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. Just a few grams of plutonium are all that it would take to make a crude nuclear weapon that could render a city the size of Chicago or Los Angeles uninhabitable for decades.
The technology for destroying plutonium has been available for many years. Plutonium is blended with uranium into a so-called mixed-oxide fuel, known as MOX, which can then be used in nuclear power plants to produce electricity. That MOX facility is at the Savannah River Site. The facility is more than 60 percent complete, and $4 billion already has been spent on its construction. But its future is in doubt.
President Obama, in his fiscal 2014 budget, proposed slashing $132.7 million — more than 29 percent — from the project’s appropriation. “This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable,” the White House budget summary said.
This is the same way the administration killed the planned nuclear waste burial site, which had been under construction at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
Although scientists had approved the Nevada site, and $10 billion had been spent on it, Obama pulled the plug in 2011. Consequently, the United States still doesn’t have an underground repository for the tons of radioactive waste now being stored at nuclear power plants around the country, including at SRS.
Policymakers have to provide the necessary funds to complete the MOX facility intended to convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, and they need to establish an interim site for storing nuclear waste until a permanent repository can be built.
If the U.S. abandons the MOX project and fails to eliminate its surplus weapons-grade plutonium, Russia has said that it will stop converting plutonium into MOX. That could expose Russia’s plutonium stockpiles to the possibility of theft.
The “Atoms for Peace” legacy hangs in the balance. Let’s hope Washington has the courage to do what’s right.
William F. Shughart II is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and the J. Fish Smith professor in public choice at Utah State University.