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Dangerous Decisions about Advanced Nuclear Reactors Could Lead to New Threats via Portside (The National Interest)

By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolsky

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.

[…]

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?

Despite the enthusiasm for new technology, the “advanced” label is misplaced. These are re-engineered versions of old designs, some over fifty years old

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?

Despite the enthusiasm for new technology, the “advanced” label is misplaced. These are re-engineered versions of old designs, some over fifty years old.

[…]

It also made no sense to flood the world with untold tons of plutonium when a few kilograms is enough for a bomb. That’s why Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter made it U.S. policy to discourage commercializing of plutonium-fueled reactors. Enthusiasts tried but failed to revive fast reactors as part of the second Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program. It appears they are trying again. 

[…]

TerraPower’s CEO told the senate hearing that the Natrium reactor would be fueled with uranium enriched to just short of 20 percent U-235 (a level that America is trying to prevent Iran from enriching to). It’s the borderline between low and highly enriched uranium. That choice seems to be related to DOE’s interest in developing a large enrichment market for the DOE-created Centrus Corporation, which is a story in itself.   

Widespread use of reactors in this mode would dramatically increase demand for enriched uranium. Will 20 percent enriched uranium remain the preferred fuel for Natrium, or will it revert to plutonium with reprocessing to meet foreign customer interest? (The original GE design included an onsite reprocessing plant.) So configured, the reactor would make and reuse massive quantities of material that could be used to create a bomb. Recently, the Senate armed Services Committee raised this worry with regard to China’s fast reactor program. Congress should nail down the answer to this key question with regard to DoE’s programs.

[…]

[moderatorsee alsoBill Gates’ Bad Bet on Plutonium-Fueled Reactors. By Frank N. von Hippel“Advanced” Isn’t Always Better. Assessing the Safety, Security, and Environmental Impacts of Non-Light-Water Nuclear Reactors. By Edwin LymanBill Gates and Warren Buffett Are Building a $1 Billion Next-Generation Nuclear Reactor in Wyoming. By Kate Duffy]

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