The false alarm about plutonium

This bright age of invention is being challenged by fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown. Today we hear voices of alarm about the horrors of plutonium - fears that are blocking its use for the production of energy. Before we succumb to terror, however, we ought to listen to the whole story.

Plutonium is said to be extremely toxic. If so, where are all the bodies? A 1981 epidemiological study says that several thousand workers have plutonium in their bodies, all for more than 10 years, and many for about 35 years. No significant health effect attributable to plutonium has been observed so far, the study said.

Realistically, its toxicity is insufficient reason to ban plutonium.

Because plutonium can be used to make bombs, it is argued, we should not use plutonium to make electricity. For this reason, former President Carter stopped the American breeder reactor program and the reprocessing of spent fuel (the extraction of unburned uranium and plutonium from used fuel). Carter said he hoped this action would set an example for other nations. To convince the rest of the world, he called for an international study that became known as INFCE (International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation).

INFCE found that the possibility for theft of bombmaking materials cannot be eliminated by forgoing the reprocessing of spent fuel and breeder reactors. If spent fuel is not reprocessed, the plutonium buried in the waste would have to be guarded against theft for extremely long periods of time, INFCE found. With reprocessing, on the other hand, the waste material has no value to people who are trying to make bombs.

Moreover, INFCE found that effective measures can be taken to minimize the chance of theft or diversion of bombmaking materials, and that such measures must be taken without jeopardizing energy supplies.

Before we close the door on breeder reactors, we ought to look at what we would be giving up. Here is a device that can make electricity out of waste. The energy equivalent of all the coal in the United States can be produced from the 35-year accumulation of depleted uranium. This waste could be converted to fuel in breeder reactors, sufficient fuel to last perhaps a thousand years without any additional mining, the most hazardous part of any energy system. A thousand years' supply of safe, reliable electricity with no additional mining!

Breeder reactors, furthermore, could use economically ores that are so low in their uranium content as to be worthless otherwise. Using them in breeder reactors and recycling the load many times through similar reactors could provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of years, according to a recent report of the National Research Council.

How can we not use that resource?

Only the US has turned its back on the breeder. The rest of the world thinks we are foolish. In April 1980, the Russians began operating a 600 MW (megawatt) breeder, the fourth to start in the USSR. Japan is building its Monju breeder. The British are operating a prototype 600-MW breeder. West Germany is building a breeder. The French are operating their 250 MW Phoenix breeder and are buiding a huge 1,200 MW Superphoenix, making France the world leader in a technology originally developed in the US.

Both INFCE and the National Research Council found that nuclear energy will be the most important alternative to oil and coal in the coming years. INFCE reported that breeder reactors are needed as part of that alternative because they stretch the fuel supply by making more electicity with less uranium. Delay in the use of breeder reactors can be expensive, they pointed out. The longer the time before we start using breeder reactors, the more uranium will be consumed, and, since there is only a finite amount of uranium in the world, the lower will be the total amount of electricity that can be produced from it.

The world's need for energy is urgent, INFCE said, and some developing countries consider nuclear energy an inalienable right because, without it, they cannot provide the electricity their development requires.

What did the US say after INFCE? President Carter said, ''In this country, nuclear power is an energy source of last resort.'' European leaders find this laughable. The developing countries see this as perpetuating the gluttonous US appetite for oil, as depriving them of oil, and as driving up the price of what is available to them.

Ultimately, the American people must decide. Shall we ban plutonium, depriving future generations of an essentially endless resource while leaving them a legacy of buried plutonium, or shall we proceed with breeder reactors and develop the security required?

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