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July 18, 2006

To Nuke or Not to Nuke


by Gordon Prather

President Bush will soon ask Congress to "not veto" a U.S.-Russia "civil" nuclear deal. "Not veto," because Russia is a "have-nuke" signatory to the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Hence, the U.S.-Russia deal – unlike the U.S.-India deal – will not require modification of the Atomic Energy Act or the repeal of other laws.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-Russia NPT-friendly deal – unlike the US-India NPT-busting deal – could face significant opposition in Congress.

Why?

For the same reason many congresspersons had a cow when North Korea unsuccessfully test-fired a missile the Koreans claim is intended for launching satellites – but is capable of reaching Hawaii, according to the Cheney Cabal. And they didn't seem to even notice when India, a few days later, also unsuccessfully test-fired two missiles, one of which the Indians claimed was intended for launching satellites – but is capable of reaching Beijing, according to the Cheney Cabal.

The Washington Post suggests that Bush concluded the civil deal – which the worldwide nuclear power industry wanted – in return for some kind of promise by Putin to pressure the Iranians into giving up "any aspirations for nuclear weapons."

Now, if that's all Bush got in return for virtually ensuring the success of Russia's plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel cycle, he's been had. Because, as everyone knows, the Iranians have sworn on a stack of Korans that Islamic law prohibits their having "any aspirations for nuclear weapons" to give up.

But back to MOX.

The avowed purpose of the U.S.-IAEA-Russia Trilateral Initiative – launched by then-Russian Minatom Minister Mikhailov, then-IAEA Director-General Blix, and then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary in 1996 – was "to fulfill the commitments" made by presidents Clinton and Yeltsin concerning IAEA verification of the disposition of weapon-origin fissile materials and to "complement their commitments regarding the transparency and irreversibility of nuclear arms reductions."

Under the Trilateral Initiative, we and the Russians were each – under IAEA supervision – to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium, obtained from the dismantling of thousands of nukes.

In a separate agreement, Clinton agreed to help Russia financially and technically dispose of their 34 metric tons of plutonium as plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear power plant fuel.

Now, in the operation of a plain-vanilla nuclear power plant, the reactor is loaded with uranium with the U-235 enriched to about 5 percent and the U-238 reduced to about 95 percent. After a fuel element has been in the reactor about five years it is replaced. About a third of the U-235 is unburned, but in addition there has been "bred" from the U-238 an almost equal amount of "burnable" plutonium. Hence, as fuel, the spent fuel element is worth about two-thirds its original value.

In Russia and in Europe – but not in America – that spent fuel is reprocessed, the uranium and plutonium chemically recovered, and new fuel produced, with enough burnable plutonium added to the uranium to get it back up to 5 percent U-235 equivalent.

A large fraction of the operating nuclear power plants in the world are American-built or -fueled and are, hence, prohibited by U.S. law from participating in the Russian MOX fuel cycle.

Five years ago, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Domenici called for the secretary of energy to develop a "National Spent Nuclear Fuel Strategy."

Domenici said that Congress urgently needed that strategy in order to determine "whether the spent fuel should be treated as waste, subject to permanent burial" (at Yucca Mountain) or whether it "should be considered to be an energy resource that is needed to meet future energy requirements."

Five years later, it appears that strategy has been developed and it involves our treating spent fuel as an asset, not a liability.

Hence, it appears the principal provision of the U.S.-Russia civil nuclear deal will be to allow owners and operators of all U.S.-built or -fueled nuclear power plants to participate in the Russian MOX fuel cycle program.

Now, it may be that Bush has realized that a solution to the current Iranian uranium-enrichment "crisis" would be for the Russian nuclear power plants at Bushehr to be fueled from the get-go with MOX fuel.

With Iran cooking with MOX, the need or even desirability of their having a uranium-enrichment capability would be obviated.

However, this U.S.-Iran confrontation has never been about Iranian nuke ambitions.

What have the Iranians been seeking ever since Bush launched his war of aggression against Iraq?

A promise not to be nuked.

Unfortunately, as long as the mullahs are in power, Bush is not going to take the nuke option off the table.


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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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