WASHINGTON -- Blurring the line between the atom's peaceful and military functions, the Energy Department embraced yesterday a plan to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for civilian nuclear reactors.
Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary outlined the controversial multibillion-dollar plan as the best way for addressing a nuclear dilemma 50 years in the making -- how to dispose of plutonium, the lethal building block of modern nuclear weapons that is in surplus as stockpiles decline.
Under the plan, which was endorsed by President Clinton, more than 50 tons of surplus plutonium stored in six sites around the nation would be consolidated at three federal facilities: along the Savannah River in South Carolina, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and in Amarillo, Texas.
From there, the dark, dense and dusty metal would be rendered useless for bomb makers by turning it into fuel to be burned in commercial nuclear reactors or by encasing it in glass and burying it in the Nevada desert.
"Whether we burn it or put it in glass, the bottom line is, for the first time in history we will be destroying instead of creating weapons-grade plutonium," O'Leary said.
But the news generated a mixed reaction from the states that would receive the plutonium. "No one wants to see Savannah River turn into some sort of nuclear junkyard," said Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. He said the Energy Department had to ensure there would be enough money to handle the plutonium properly.
It won't be cheap. Official DOE estimates place the cost of constructing the facilities needed to handle the waste at $2.3 billion. But many, including those on Capitol Hill and even within the department itself, say the cost could easily soar past $4 billion.
The plutonium project would also have to compete with other big-ticket DOE projects, including a new, multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor to produce tritium, another critical, but more perishable, component for warheads.
Nor will it come without opposition. DOE will not make a decision for two years on which path to pursue, but agency officials and those close to the issue believe the government will use a combination of the two approaches.
There is little controversy over the idea of mixing the plutonium with glass, which renders it useless. Savannah River is the only site producing and storing the glass logs in significant quantities.
But the most troubling problem, according to critics, is that the fuel plan gives an incentive for producing plutonium that could later be used in weapons.
One option in the plan calls for converting plutonium into so-called mixed oxide fuel (MOX) that could be sold to electric utilities to be used in commercial reactors as fuel.
O'Leary said 18 utilities or consortia have expressed interest in buying the fuel, including Duke Power in the Carolinas, Georgia Power, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Southern Co.
Pub Date: 12/10/96