Sixty years ago this December, President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned a dangerous situation around. In an address to the U.N. General Assembly at the height of the Cold War, he made a commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
That commitment is now being threatened: by activists who oppose building a storage depository for nuclear waste and by energy policies that favor any alternative to fossil fuels except a nuclear one.
The goal of Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace vision should be evident. Currently, 68 nuclear power plants are being built around the world, according to the World Nuclear Association. An additional 150 are in the planning stage, and an additional 340 have been proposed.
All of this is in addition to the 437 nuclear plants currently in operation, including 104 in the United States. Overall, nuclear power supplies 12.3 percent of the worlds electricity and its the largest source of carbon-free energy.
Since Eisenhowers historic address to the United Nations, the United States and Russia reached an agreement to dispose of surplus fissionable materialsweapons-grade uranium and plutonium. In one of historys greatest disarmament successes, 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium have been removed from Russian warheads once aimed at U.S. cities.
The U.S.-Russia agreement also called for each country to eliminate 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, another material used in nuclear warheads, to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. Just a few grams of plutonium are all that it would take to make a crude nuclear weapon that could render a city the size of Chicago or Los Angeles uninhabitable for decades.
But will weapons-grade plutonium really be eliminated?
The technology for destroying plutonium has been available for many years. Plutonium is blended with uranium into a so-called mixed-oxide fuel, known as MOX, which can then be used in nuclear power plants to produce electricity. The U.S. Department of Energys Nuclear Security Administration has been building a facility for this purpose at its Savannah River site in South Carolina.
The facility is more than 60 percent complete, and $4 billion already has been spent on its construction. But its future is in doubt.
President Obama, in his fiscal 2014 budget, just proposed slashing $132.7 millionmore than 29 percentfrom the projects appropriation. This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, the White House budget summary said, promising that the administration will now assess the feasibility of alternative...strategies.
This is the same way the administration killed the planned nuclear waste burial site, which had been under construction at Nevadas Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Although scientists had approved the Nevada site, and $10 billion had been spent on it, Obama pulled the plug in 2011. Consequently, the United States still doesnt have an underground repository for the tons of radioactive waste now being stored at nuclear power plants around the country, or for the nuclear waste generated by our defense program.
The solution to this dilemma is fairly clear: policymakers have to provide the necessary funds to complete the Savannah River facility intended to convert weapons-grade plutonium into MOX, and they need to establish an interim site for storing nuclear waste until a permanent repository can be built.
Theres a lot at stake. If the United States abandons the South Carolina project and fails to eliminate its surplus weapons-grade plutonium, Russia has said that it will stop converting plutonium into MOX. That, unfortunately, could expose Russias plutonium stockpiles to the possibility of theft.
Can the MOX project be saved? Yes, it probably can. Should it be saved? Absolutely, despite the fact that repeated delays have helped drive up the cost to $6.8 billion, a $2 billion increase. Will it be saved? Thats very much in doubt.
The truth is: Failure of the MOX project wouldnt just be foolish and reckless energy policy, it would be a giant blow to anti-terrorism and disarmament.
President Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace legacy hangs in the balance. Lets hope Washington has the courage to do whats right.