Posted 6 months ago on March 19, 2014, 3:57 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive?
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 12:24
By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith, Center for Public Integrity | Report
Washington — A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.
A Washington-based physicist and nuclear contrarian, Cochran helped kill a vast plutonium-based nuclear industrial complex back in the 1970s, and now he’s at it again — lecturing at symposia, standing up at official meetings, and confronting nuclear industry representatives with warnings about how commercializing plutonium will put the public at enormous risk.
Where the story ends isn’t clear. But the stakes are large.
The impetus for Cochran’s urgent new campaign — supported by a growing cadre of arms control and proliferation experts — is a seemingly puzzling decision by Japan to ready a new $22 billion plutonium production plant for operation as early as October.
The plant will provide fuel for scores of special reactors resembling those canceled in America a generation ago. Critics of the Japanese project worry that its completion in just a few months will create a crucial beachhead for longtime nuclear advocates who claim that plutonium, a sparkplug of nuclear weapons, can provide a promising civilian path to carbon-free energy.
According to its builders, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which has been undergoing testing since 2006, will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Rokkasho would be the fifth-largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.
The metal is to be burned by Japanese utilities in dozens of fast breeder reactors, so named because they have the capability to both consume and produce plutonium. The ambition is to make Japan, a craggy, energy-starved island, nearly self-sufficient in generating electrical power.
But there is a hitch, Cochran and his allies say. A big one.
A lump of plutonium weighing 6.6 pounds — roughly the size of a grapefruit — is enough to make a nuclear weapon with an explosive power of 1 kiloton, or 1,000 tons, of TNT. If the Japanese plan goes forward, the island nation in theory would in a year have plutonium sufficient to build around 2,600 bombs, or enough to compose the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.
Japan has renounced any desire to make nuclear weapons, but Cochran and others worry that by creating a huge plutonium stockpile — and shuttling it all over the country — the utilities there will be creating a tempting, perhaps irresistible, target for nuclear terrorists.
And though Japan is perhaps closest to finishing such a massive plutonium factory, its ambitions are far from unique.
Iran is building a research reactor near the western city of Arak capable of producing enough spent fuel to make about 20 pounds of high-grade plutonium a year — the equivalent of nearly three bombs a year. Tehran says nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents it from acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, but its plans have provoked widespread Western condemnation and are the focus of continuing international negotiations.
India recently completed a reprocessing plant capable of extracting new plutonium from about 100 tons of spent fuel yearly at Tarapur, north of Mumbai, in 2011. It joined three older plants that produced 3.8 to 4.6 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years.
Little is known about another plutonium plant under construction at Kalpakkam, south of Chennai on the Indian Ocean, but the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says it “will likely surpass” Tarapur “as India’s largest plutonium producer.”
China is considering building a new civilian plutonium plant about the size of Rokkashoat the site of two decommissioned military plutonium plants at the Jiuquan Complex in Gansu Province. Even so, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Feb. 21 that the government had “grave concerns over Japan’s storage of weapon’s grade plutonium, and lodged representations to the Japanese side recently.”
South Korea has expressed a similar interest in plutonium production, pointing explicitly to Japan as a precedent. And Japan itself has embarked on campaign — in India and elsewhere — to market its nuclear proficiency and technology.
“You’re talking about spreading this technology [and scientific expertise] all over the world in non-weapons states, and trying to safeguard it, ” says Cochran. “It’s a recipe for weapons capability.”
So far, Japan’s pursuit of its ambitious plutonium program — using nuclear fuel and technology provided partly by the United States — has mostly been greeted by public silence among government officials in allied capitals.
But there is little dispute the consequences could be far-reaching. Standing by while Japan opens the Rokkasho plutonium factory could “make it impossible” for the U.S. to resist pressure from other countries seeking bomb-fuel technology, said Thomas Moore, who served for ten years as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert on arms control.
Henry Sokolski, a former Defense Department official who now runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says that if Rokkasho opens, the United States will find it particularly hard to tell South Korea that it cannot make plutonium-based fuels — a goal that Seoul is strenuously lobbying for in Washington, as part of a bilateral nuclear trade agreement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia, could also follow Japan’s example, Sokolski said. Others worry about Turkey, Vietnam or Egypt. The list goes on and on.
“It’s very hard,” says James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, “to divide the world into states we like and states we don’t like, and say to one group it can do whatever it wants and say to members of the other group that they have to restrain their behavior.”
Already, the world has accumulated approximately 490 metric tons of plutonium, enough for about 81,600 nuclear weapons similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, in the 73 years since specks of plutonium were first synthesized at the University of California, Berkeley.
Japan, still reeling from the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima three years ago this week, is proceeding with the Rokkasho plant, its atomic energy officials say, because abandoning it would kill jobs, bankrupt utilities, and undermine plans to reopen up to 50 of the nuclear reactors forced to shutter by Fukushima. Without Rokkasho to process their waste, the reactor sites would soon be overflowing with spent fuel.
But there’s more to it than that. Japan — like the United States before 1976, England from 1959 to 1994, and France from 1967 to 2009 — has long dreamed that the radioactive wastes created by nuclear reactors could one day be routinely “recycled” or burned as fuel to make electricity instead of being buried underground.
After spending tens of billions of dollars and decades on breeder-related programs, Tom Cochran said, countries find it hard to pull the plug.
“You have an entrenched bureaucracy and an entrenched research and development community and commercial interests invested in breeder technology, and these guys don’t go away,” Cochran said. “They’re believers … and they’re not going to give up. The really true believers don’t give up.”
Fixing the Facts To Create a Crisis With Iran
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 09:13
By Gareth Porter, Truthout | Book Excerpt
Fictitious WMDs created a pretext for launching the ill-fated and destructive war with Iraq. Gareth Porter, an investigative reporter and frequent contributor to Truthout, writes a compelling book, "Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare," that argues that similar tactics were created to justify a war with Iran.
Nukes Now: Obama Worse Than Reagan
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 12:25
By Steve Breyman, Truthout | Op-Ed
Heads-up, veterans of the nuclear freeze movement in the United States, the anti-Euromissile campaigns in Western Europe and the various anti-nuclear weapons efforts in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Incoming.