Plutonium and the Pork Barrel

July 11, 1994

A dozen years ago, after furious debate, the federal government scrapped ambitious plans to build a breeder nuclear reactor, designed to produce tons of plutonium as fuel for other reactors even as it generated nuclear power.

The Clinch River breeder project is dead, a recognition its toxic plutonium fuel was unneeded domestically and threatened further international nuclear weapons proliferation. But Congress has continued to pay for nuclear breeder research -- almost $9 billion worth. Eleven days ago, against the urging of the Clinton administration and the House, the Senate voted to spend another $98 million for breeder reactor research, a pork barrel gesture for laboratories in Idaho and Illinois.

Recognizing the lack of economic viability, the commercial nuclear power industry still isn't putting its money into developing a breeder, now estimated to cost more than $5 billion even if it could operate as advertised.

The current selling point of the breeder's backers is that it could burn up plutonium from stockpiles of outdated nuclear warheads or reactor waste. But the breeder would still produce more radioactive material than it consumes.

One breeder reactor would do little to reduce the nation's plutonium; one study estimates it would take a dozen breeders working 1,000 years to achieve a substantial reduction. The National Academy of Sciences concludes that present designs of the breeder, or advanced liquid metal reactor, "do not offer sufficient advantages to overcome their liabilities of cost, timing and uncertainty." The congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the General Accounting Office agree.

Breeder technology makes no sense from an energy, environmental or economic point of view. It doesn't work and it isn't needed. There's enough natural uranium for future conventional reactors; fossil fueled generators are regaining favor as cheaper producers of electricity.

Most important, the continued support for breeder programs undermines President Clinton's campaign to lead the world toward reducing the threat of plutonium proliferation. Building breeder reactors expands the already menacing supply of plutonium for weapons; just a few pounds can make a bomb. We urge the House to stand firm in opposing this unwarranted Senate addition to the Energy Department budget and to finally put an end to this dangerous and extravagant program that breeds only waste.

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