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Balancing Politics and Plutonium

The Integral Fast Reactor faces critics: Is it a nuclear-waste solution, or a waste of money?

OPPONENTS of a federal research project on advanced nuclear-reactor technology are preparing for another try to kill it. But proponents say the experiments are so far along that their results could be had for the same cost as halting the work.

The project is the Integral Fast Reactor. Scientists on the project at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and Argonne National Laboratory-West in Idaho depict the IFR as the Holy Grail of fission.

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The IFR rose from the ashes of the Clinch River breeder-reactor project, which Congress killed in 1983. That reactor would have used France's Purex process to recapture plutonium from fuel rods for reuse as reactor fuel. The Purex process isolates weapons-grade plutonium, however, something the United States did not want to encourage.

Knowing that electricity-hungry countries were likely to go nuclear anyway, the US in 1984 initiated research to discover an alternative to the Purex process that curtailed the opportunity for bombmaking. The result is the IFR recycling method, as yet demonstrated only in the laboratory, which leaves plutonium mingled with other materials that yield energy in a reactor but that would make a bomb a dud.

That's just the beginning of the IFR's selling points, Argonne scientists say. In theory, and in tests so far, the IFR extracts 100 percent of the energy value of uranium and fission byproducts like plutonium, compared with 3 percent for conventional light-water reactors (LWRs). Thus there would be less waste to bury from an IFR - 25 percent of the volume from an LWR.

When a LWR fails to capture the full energy of fuel material, that material becomes the most dangerously radioactive and very long-lived part of LWR waste. An IFR would transmute most of it into radioactive products that would decay to harmlessness in a few hundred years, although a small percentage would be weakly radioactive for far longer. Thus, Argonne scientists regard long-term storage of IFR waste as manageable with greater confidence than storage of LWR waste. They also say that plutonium cores from scrapped nuclear warheads would work just fine as IFR fuel, too.

Congress gave the project $30 million last year, bringing total spending on the IFR to $730 million since 1984. But President Clinton wants to pull the IFR's plug. He proposed no money for the project in his Fiscal 1995 budget except to shut it down.

Department of Energy officials say that the administration wants to kill the IFR to save money, to allow the Energy Department to focus on developing an advanced LWR, and to remain consistent with President Clinton's stand against the US or anyone else reprocessing plutonium for fuel or weapons.

Shutting down the IFR would cost $450 million and take five years - the same as if the research were completed, says Charles Till, associate director of Argonne and head of the IFR project. ``This is not a budget issue. It's an antinuclear issue,'' he says.

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``It's really a political thorn in [the administration's] side to keep this thing going,'' adds David Carle, press secretary for Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, who favors the project.

Two weeks ago, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released a report requested by an IFR opponent, Rep. Phil Sharp (D) of Indiana. The OTA report considers the potential of the IFR to solve the ``intractable problem'' of plutonium disposal.

Hundreds of tons of plutonium in used fuel rods and warheads must be stored safely or destroyed as reactor fuel so that it does not contaminate the environment or fall into the hands of unfriendly governments. Fifteen pounds of plutonium is enough to make an atomic bomb.

The OTA report concludes that the US will have accumulated enough plutonium in LWR waste by 2010, the year when IFR technology would be ready for commercial use, that 20 IFRs would take 100 years to transmute it.

That's not necessarily bad, considering that the electricity generated would be enough to supply a Texas-sized population throughout that period, says Dr. Till. Short-term storage will be required regardless of the ultimate method of plutonium disposal chosen, the OTA report says.

Regarding bombmaking, the report says, possession of an IFR ``would bring with it some of the technology needed to produce weapons plutonium.'' The report led Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts to blast the IFR as ``dangerous from a proliferation perspective.''

Till strongly disagrees. Recycled IFR fuel would still need to go through a Purex-type process to make it weapons-grade. If a country had access to that, it would likely skip the IFR recycling step, Till says.

As it is, some 1,000 tons of plutonium already are scattered among 30 countries. The volume grows by 70 tons a year. Five countries use the Purex process and more have announced the intention to do so. Without the IFR, the US has no alternative to offer them, Argonne scientists say.

The OTA report also hints that IFR waste would be just as risky to store long-term as LWR waste from the standpoint of ground water contamination. Till rejects that notion.

The primary concern is technitium-99, which has a half-life of 210,000 years. In LWR waste, that fission product is a water-soluble oxide. In IFR waste, it is a nonsoluble metal. Other weakly radioactive trace elements in IFR waste such as cesium-135 (half-life: 2 million years) and iodine-129 (half-life: 17,200,000 years) would be chemically bound to zeolite during the IFR fuel-recycling process. The resulting ``rock'' is ``very resistant'' to water, Till says.

The OTA report passes no final judgment. It says that the IFR's claims are ``somewhat uncertain'' at this stage of experimentation. But if they were demonstrated, the technology ``would offer considerable benefits.''

Before a choice is made between the IFR and other options, the report says, the US should establish a policy on plutonium disposal. Such a policy has been slow in coming. For instance, it was left out of the program that Clinton announced recently regarding joint inspection of Russian and US plutonium stockpiles.

A US policy is needed soon, the OTA report says. Plutonium stocks from dismantled weapons, particularly in the former Soviet Union, represent a ``clear and present danger'' of nuclear-weapons proliferation, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Plutonium created by civilian reactors is a less-immediate, but still long-term, proliferation risk, the NAS says. In the US, commercial reactors generate 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel a year, of which the plutonium content is 1 percent.

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