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.
By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
The Department of Energy’s recently launched Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) is slipping by without any close Congressional oversight, which is unfortunate as there are some serious questions that should be answered, including ones related to national security. The program was launched with an award of $160 million to TerraPower for its Natrium design and X-energy for its Xe-100. Each is to build a full-scale nuclear reactor within the next seven years, one that could be duplicated and sold commercially. While not a huge sum, it is intended to be the down payment on over $3 billion, a sum that is supposed to be cost-shared by the companies, with more for other projects.
At a March 25 Senate Energy Committee hearing on “advanced” reactors, executives of the two companies described a future with almost unlimited opportunities worldwide for their reactors, hundreds, maybe thousands. They got an enthusiastic reception from both sides of the aisle, summed up by Chairman Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) final observation that while wind and solar power were OK, “nuclear really does the job.” No one asked how the reactors will be fueled. Will they be fueled with nearly highly enriched uranium, or with plutonium? And what will be the security consequences of selling and encouraging reactors fueled with such fuels around the world?
To read the full article, click here.