Last week, the U.S. State Department launched a $5.3-million program to promote the overseas deployment of U.S. “advanced” nuclear reactor technologies. The Department views these reactors as being cheaper and safer than the current generation of nuclear plants. It’s unclear, however, how these reactors might be fueled and what nuclear materials they might produce.
State and Congress need to find out. In the attached piece, posted by The National Interest, Victor Gilinsky and I spotlight the Department of Energy’s (DoE's) recently announced Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). It just funded Bill Gates’ TerraPower Natrium fast breeder reactor. This plant’s original design included an onsite reprocessing plant to help fashion plutonium-based fuels for the reactor. Plutonium is a nuclear weapons explosive. The current plan is to run the Natrium design on 20 percent enriched uranium but it could revert to running on plutonium.
Congress needs to nail this down. TerraPower’s CEO recently testified that there was a significant overseas market for the Natrium design and that he “anticipated growing Natrium output” from 300 megawatts “back up to gigawatt scale.” If these plants were to be powered with plutonium-based fuels, they would require an inventory of many hundreds of bombs’ worth of the nuclear explosive. Once on line, a one-gigawatt reactor could make nearly 100 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
When asked about China’s fast reactor program, the head of U.S. Strategic Command voiced his concern that it would afford Beijing a “very large source of weapons-grade plutonium,” one that might push China’s future weapons arsenal to “the upper bounds.” When asked about this, the U.S. Energy Department (DoE) demuredthat the advanced fast reactors it was developing “incorporate nonproliferation considerations.” What this means is anybody’s guess. Before Congress funds DoE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, it should make sure that DoE's fast reactors won't be using plutonium or require reprocessing.