The Great Plutonium Scare

The "most toxic substance know to man" is far more valuable than gold.


The Ford Foundation, this country's most lavishly funded promoter of ideological economics, recently issued a report recommending abandonment of the nuclear breeder reactor program.

The last time this institution sponsored a $4 million energy report, it was described by Armen Alchian, professor of economics at the University of California, as one that "enters the Guinness Book of Records for the most errors of economic analysis and fact in one book, is arrogant in its assertions of waste and inefficiency, is paternalist on its conception of energy consumption management, is politically naive, and uses demagoguery."

The present report gives the semblance of cool objectivity, but its arguments are largely contradictory, irrelevant, and forcibly recruited to bolster a preconceived and erroneous conclusion—that plutonium technology in the electric power industry must result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It took the Carter administration less than three weeks to swallow the recommendations of the report lock, stock, and plutonium scare to justify a policy of "nuclear power yes, breeders no."

Such a strategy is politically highly expedient. Solar energy, windmills, and fumaroles make popular conversation pieces, but for providing energy by the thousands of megawatts, there are only two near-term solutions: coal and nuclear. While it is easy for the armchair strategists to call for a ban on nuclear energy, no politician who will be held responsible if the electric power runs out can even toy with such a thought. Yet, by stopping the breeder program, he can show that he is not really pronuclear and save his image among the public opinion molders in the mass media.

To be pronuclear but antibreeder is, of course, much the same thing as being proeating but antiswallowing. There is a reprieve however: the blunder of letting several centuries' worth of energy go to waste will not come home with its full vengeance for another decade—so let some other president worry. Hence "nuclear yes, breeder no" makes for highly expedient politics.

But it doesn't make for serious energy strategy.


The "nuclear yes" part of the Ford Foundation report is rather halfhearted. Certainly the authors are to be commended for comparing the risks of nuclear power with those of fossil fuels, particularly coal—a comparison that the nuclear foes abhor and evade at all costs, because it is so favorable for nuclear power. But the comparision is made here with two very different yardsticks. For nuclear power, the authors consider what might happen; for other energy sources, only what has happened, and even that with some very striking omissions. They do not consider the record of nuclear power long enough to provide an adequate basis for risk prediction, in which case they would have done well to look at some of the things that have happened with orthodox power sources during the same short time: a dam disaster killed 2,000 in Italy in 1963; an air pollution episode (mostly due to coal-fired plants) killed 3,900 Londoners in 1952; liquid-natural gas tank explosions took 33 lives in 1973, and in 1944, shortly before the era of nuclear power, there were 133 dead in Cleveland, Ohio; and plenty more has happened in the period deemed too short for nuclear power.

Instead, the authors speculate on what might happen in a major nuclear accident and reassure us with the comforting thought that such an accident might not be out of line with other disasters, such as hurricanes.

Why hurricanes? Do we have a choice of either generating nuclear electricity or falling victim to a hurricane? The logical counterpart to what might happen in a nuclear accident is what might happen in an accident with energy sources that nuclear power can replace. How many thousands would have died in New York City from the smoke of the oil fire in January 1976 if the wind had not blown it out to sea? How many tens of thousands would have died in Los Angeles if the hydroelectric dam above the San Fernando Valley had not been empty in the earthquake of February 1971?

The authors never ask. They speculate how many lives might be lost, but not how many saved, by nuclear power. Their most pessimistic assumptions are reserved exclusively for nuclear energy. Even so, they conclude: "With very pessimistic assumptions, even when the possibility of reactor accidents is included, the adverse health effects of nuclear power are less than or within the range of health effects from coal.…Nuclear power has significantly less environmental impact than coal."

One could point out more condemnations by faint praise in the "nuclear yes" part of the report; but its real punch is in the "breeder no" part.


The basic concept of breeder reactors rests on the following:

There are four isotopes capable of sustaining a chain reaction that releases nuclear fission energy; uranium 233, uranium 235, plutonium 239, and plutonium 241. Of these, only one occurs in nature, U-235—and that only as a minute fraction (0.7%) of the uranium in uranium ore; the rest is U-238, which is not fissionable.

Now 0.7% is not enough for reactor fuel, and in a costly process (costly both in dollars and energy), the uranium must be "enriched" so that the fraction of the fissionable U-235 in it is increased to about 3.5%. The remaining 99.3% of the uranium, U-238, at present simply goes to waste.

Fortunately, the other three fissionable isotopes can be produced, or bred, from "fertile" isotopes abundant in nature. There are two such fertile isotopes: thorium 232 and uranium 238—the latter the one that now goes to waste. Thorium can be bred into U-233; U-238 into plutonium.

The beauty of breeding nuclear fuel is that it does not, like uranium enrichment, use energy; on the contrary, it produces it. A breeder not only converts fertile material into fissionable fuel; it produces energy at the same time.

This is not science fiction or even a "next century" perspective. The United States has had a small experimental breeder reactor in successful operation in Idaho Falls since 1964. Britain is close to putting a demonstration plant into operation; the USSR already has one; and France has a breeder on line supplying power to the public utility net. The last has been in commercial operation since July 1974, with a reliability superior to conventional nuclear plants.

The possibilities of the breeder boggle the mind. Consider just this single aspect: if no more than the uranium tailings (U-238) now going to waste in storage vessels around the country were used as breeder fuel, they could provide the energy now imported as OPEC oil for 700 years.


There are more than 200,000 tons of such "waste," that is, uranium depleted of its fissionable U-235 content, stored in steel vessels at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and elsewhere. These neatly packaged, above-ground, ready-for-use supplies could be converted to fuel in a breeder of the type that France already has in operation.

As for the total U.S. uranium reserves, they may not last much longer than the end of the century if only the fissionable U-235 is used and the remainder is wasted. But if all of it is utilized by means of breeders, the supply amounts to 10 times as much energy as is contained in all of U.S. coal reserves—a supply for centuries.

Against this vast conservation potential stands the objection that the production of plutonium in the civilian sector would encourage terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The corresponding arguments given by the report are often erroneous and always irrelevant; but even if they were sound, the vast potential for energy conservation might make it well worth the risks: clearly, anyone who advocates conservation by mandatory taxes for heavier (and inherently safer) cars while rejecting several centuries' worth of assured energy supplies is playing politics.

It should be pointed out that not all critics of nuclear power are reckless superstition mongers who attack nuclear power on the point that constitutes one of its main attractions—its safety. Knowledgeable people, while well aware of this attraction, believe that the known U.S. uranium reserves may not be sufficient to fuel the planned nuclear reactors for the rest of this century. Such concerns are shared by few in industry and government, but resource estimation is a tricky business and the warning cannot be rejected out of hand.

The authors of the report are not worried, however. These pessimists have suddenly been converted to the rosiest optimism: "The current assessment of uranium reserves probably substantially understates the supplies that will become available." The reason better estimates are not now available seems to be that they are now "entirely dependent on private efforts to locate, define, and report reserves." Presumably, such efforts become more reliable in the hands of government bureaucrats.


The usual verses of the plutonium litany, "the most toxic substance known to man" and "the fearsome fuel toxic beyond human experience" are mercifully absent from the report. But even without going through the fashionable ritual, the authors arrive at the mandatory final ceremony—reading the breeder program out of nuclear power; an exercise more common, but not less absurd, than reading food production out of agriculture. The reason is plutonium: specifically, its alleged dangers in waste disposal, terrorism, and proliferation.

Plutonium is the substance that contains more energy per unit of volume than any other; as such, its discovery may one day be ranked with the subjugation of fire and the discovery of the wheel—both of which also can be, and have been, abused for evil purposes.

Both its toxicity and its suitability for sabotage turn out to be something of a letdown after all the adverse publicity. Plutonium is an alpha emitter; its radiation will not penetrate a newspaper page, much less the human skin (except through an open wound), a marked difference from radioactive substances emitting penetrating gamma rays.

It is toxic when eaten, but only about ten times more (by weight) than the caffeine in coffee, and hundreds of thousands of times less toxic than some chemical and biological poisons. Its main danger is in being inhaled in dust form, for fine particles of it can lodge in the lung and cause lung cancer—some 15 to 45 years after inhalation. But even in this respect, it is less dangerous than some radioactive substances produced by nature (such as radium).

The decade-long delay of its effects, together with the fact that (unlike chemical and biological toxins) minuscule amounts of it can be detected due to its radioactivity, makes plutonium dispersal utterly unsuited for terrorism or extortion (threatening hostages).

Between three and five tons of plutonium have been committed to the atmosphere in bomb tests; 25 workers of the Manhattan Project during World War II received 25 times the presently allowed body burden without ill effects; many tons of plutonium have been handled in the weapons program; yet not a single death has ever been traced to plutonium inhalation.

Many tons of plutonium have also been handled and successfully guarded against illicit use in the weapons industry, and without giving rise to a police state. Perhaps more important, they have also been produced, recovered, purified, fabricated, stored, and transported for more than 35 years by methods whose analogue in the commercial sector incurs the Ford report's comment:

"much more difficult and expensive than anticipated."


The plutonium recycling technique has, in itself, little to do with the breeder program, for the recycled plutonium can be burned in presently used conventional nuclear power reactors (as well as in commercial breeder reactors of the future).

As the fissionable U-235 burns up in the fuel rods of a conventional reactor, it not only produces wastes but also converts some of the fertile U-238 into plutonium, some of which, in turn, is consumed and releases energy that is eventually converted into electricity.

Yes, that's right: plutonium is already generating electricity here and now—if the power in your home is generated by a nuclear plant, up to one third of it comes, not from uranium, but from plutonium.

But not all of the plutonium (or U-235, for that matter) is consumed. Long before the fissionable materials burn up, the rods become poisoned with wastes and prevent the total burn-up of the fuel. By a process well tested and proven in both the United States and Europe, though not yet legalized for commercial use, the remaining fuel can be extracted (leaving only 1% to go to waste) and fabricated into fresh fuel rods. In particular, the recovered plutonium can be either stored for future use in breeders or, of more immediate interest, combined with uranium in a "mixed oxide" fuel (which can't be made to explode) for use in current reactors.

A commercial Allied Chemical plant at Barnwell, South Carolina, now stands ready and waiting to do the job. The fact that it is seeking government support not only has nothing to do with technical feasibility but is, above all, a result of the uncertain climate surrounding nuclear ventures (and, indeed all large-scale energy projects), which makes investors reluctant to finance them. To attack the process on economic grounds is, as so often with nuclear issues, the tactic of the parenticide who asks the court for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Recycling, if used for fuel in current reactors, will reduce the requirement for mined uranium by 22.5%; and if used for breeder operation, that requirement is reduced to a mere 1%.

The alternative recommended by the Ford Foundation report is to dispose of the used fuel rods without the benefit of recycling. This does not merely waste energy; it also sharply reduces one of the great advantages of nuclear power—the minute volume of waste per unit of generated energy. Reprocessing shrinks the waste volume to be managed by no less than 80% compared with the "throw-away" disposal of spent fuel recommended by the report.

The reason the authors oppose plutonium recycling and the breeder is, if one were to take them seriously, threefold: poor economics, the threat of terrorism, and the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation. But a closer reading makes it clear that what really worries them is the purely political question of proliferation; the other two are used to supply additional arguments—awkwardly forced ones, as it turns out.


Plutonium is worth about $19 a gram, or about three times as much as gold. Economists who propose that the stuff be left in a cooling pool and then buried forever on the grounds that "any net economic benefit during this century is questionable" would seem to be in need of a pocket calculator.

The stockpile of uranium tailings already stored and ready for use as fertile breeder fuel, if valued at the price of an equivalent amount of coal, represents a fuel asset of $20 trillion. $20 trillion. A billion here or there for the breeder program is laughable by comparison, and economists who write that "the early economic potential of the breeder has been significantly overstated" would again seem to be in need of a calculator—a 13-digit calculator this time.

More disturbing, perhaps, is the report's general attitude toward economic issues. While paying lip service to free enterprise, it calls, in fact, for more government regulation or outright control at every step: "The present argument for private ownership of new [enrichment] capacity is not persuasive.…The government should retain control of both enrichment facilities and new enrichment techonologies." It also freely decrees what is economic and what isn't: "The prospect of a large export market for breeders in this century is illusory," we are told.

Perhaps so. In that case, it used to be, the marketing research of competent corporations would warn their executives to stay out, while less competent corporations would pay a grievous price for their faulty judgment. The "invisible hand" would guide the competent to prosperity and the incompetent into bankruptcy.

No longer. Now the Ford Foundation determines what is profitable and what is illusory, and the all too visible hand of government will rudely interfere.


The plutonium oxide used in breeders or obtainable from mixed oxide fuel by a complicated process of chemical separation is not what is used in military weapons; but it is, in pure theory, a feasible nuclear explosive. That a dedicated group of highly expert specialists—in the fields of nuclear physics, metallurgy, radiation protection, chemical high-explosives, machining, and many branches of criminal activity—should waste its talent for many months on fashioning a crude nuclear device rather than inflicting heavier losses by far easier methods is an idea worthy of bloodcurdling TV fantasies (sometimes masquerading as "documentaries"). The authors of the report do not seem overly impressed by it. They commendably point out that a completed weapon would make a more convenient target of theft; and there have been no difficulties in guarding such weapons against illicit use in the last 30 years.

What the report does not say is that with breeder technology (as the French experience has shown), the chance of plutonium theft is very slim, because the amount of plutonium produced by a breeder can be matched to the demand by conventional reactors. There need never be any plutonium in surplus storage.

While in the reactor core or breeder blanket the plutonium is utterly inaccessible for illicit use, in transport to the reactor it is not liable to clandestine theft but at best to forceful robbery, which can almost certainly be prevented by small escorts and appropriate technology (trucks that can be rendered immobile and inaccessible in a matter of seconds).


There are two major omissions in the discussion of the breeder program, which are especially serious in a discussion that tries to make a case against the breeder on the grounds of plutonium hazards.

The first is that the authors consider only the plutonium breeder, never mentioning the other fertile fuel, thorium, which can be bred into uranium 233. U-233, like U-235, can undergo a nuclear explosion if sufficiently pure. It can be diluted with U-238, however, to form a mixture that cannot be made to explode, and once that is done it is impossible to separate the two components chemically.

The thorium cycle is proven and has a number of advantages: while the plutonium breeder could extend the fuel supply for centuries, the thorium cycle could extend it for millennia. There are also a number of disadvantages, for example, the thousands of tons of depleted uranium now piling up and being stored around the country would still go to waste, and thorium mining has not been developed. In any case, the study's recommendations on the breeder program, which range into the next century, do not mention the thorium cycle at all.

The other fatal flaw of the breeder discussion is its assumption that the plutonium for fueling the breeder must be produced in the same way as bomb-grade plutonium.

Not so. The fission products in the spent fuel rods make the plutonium in them unworkable for both bombs and conventional reactors, but they do not stop the fast-neutron breeder action. The highly radioactive spent fuel rods need only some cooling before their contents are removed in remotely controlled chambers and reassembled into new rods for the breeders. This "dry" method was, in fact, used for several years in the experimental breeder reactor now running in Idaho Falls.

Locked inside the highly radioactive and hot fuel rods, the plutonium is, of course, utterly inaccessible to diversion and quite useless for anything but fresh breeder fuel. That the report should have omitted this point is, at best, sloppy, but quite possibly dishonest.


The awkwardly labored arguments against plutonium technology, whether in reprocessing or breeding, are evidently meant to form the artificial pillars for the real point to be made: the prevention of proliferation, that is, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries that do not now have them. This, to the authors, is "by far the most serious danger associated with nuclear power."

Proliferation is, of course, a purely political problem, and the authors' political viewpoint is naive to an extent that borders on the humorous. (But the laughter dies in one's throat on remembering that one of the signers, Harold Brown, has since become Secretary of Defense.)

What the convoluted argument of the report amounts to on this point is: let's lay off plutonium; if we set a good example, the rest of the world will lay off it also, and there will be no material for bombs. Let advanced nuclear technology, fuel supplies, and enrichment capacity be controlled by an international organization (such as that pillar of justice and effectiveness, the United Nations), and developing countries will find no country willing to let them have potential weapons material—well, not more than a dozen or so, anyway.

The fact that this type of argument defies all rationality need not necessarily be fatal; the real point is whether it will be embraced by the rulers of the Soviet Empire. But will it? Is the country that tears up treaties to invade its own allies likely to keep treaties with its adversaries? And even among countries that recognize the sanctity of contract, will West Germany break its word to Brazil to supply a uranium enrichment plant? Will France, which has long since overtaken the United States in breeder technology, dismantle its Phénix breeder and stop construction of its Superphénix? Will Britain, Germany, and Japan (all of which have made significant commitments to reprocessing and breeder technology, and lack U.S. energy alternatives) wipe out decades of effort for the sake of a naive and ineffective public-relations stunt?

The facts of proliferation are sad and simple. Perhaps the most important of them here is that proliferation has little, if anything, to do with power generation. Plutonium can be bred from the abundant supplies of U-238 scattered throughout the world without going to the considerable trouble of generating electric power at the same time. Nor is plutonium the only nuclear explosive. Uranium can be enriched to bomb-grade levels; while it is not simple enough to be used in a clandestine garage, it is essentially attainable by countries with only moderately advanced technology. And laser enrichment, as yet realized only on a minute scale in the laboratory, may eventually arrive.

The point that the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is tenuous or nonexistent is made quite well by the authors of the report themselves: "The United States is not in a position to stop the expansion of nuclear power. Moreover, advanced countries, and some developing countries, are not dependent on nuclear power to produce nuclear weapons. None of the present nuclear weapons states developed its weapons through nuclear power. Each followed the direct path of producing the fissionable materials in facilities designed specifically for the purpose."

"Despite this…," they continue. But despite what? There follows a long exercise in mental acrobatics; but there can be, and there is no, "despite." They have said it well enough.


The tenuous link between power and weaponry consists, perhaps, in having the scientific expertise and the general industrial base necessary for both fields; but if a country wished to produce fissionable material in secret, it would hardly choose the power industry as a disguise. It would be the obvious place to look, and in most countries it is also subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But why in secret? What is to stop the USSR from selling fissionable material to African groups that have been promoted to the status of "national liberation movements," as they are already selling them weaponry? Only the paper of the Nonproliferation Treaty and the honor of the Soviet Politburo. In the case of Communist China, not even that.

What the Ford Foundation suggests in this area that is totally unrelated to nuclear electric power is not merely unilateral disarmament; it falls little short of capitulation to the Soviet refusal to limit strategic arms on any but their own terms, to their policy of going feverishly nuclear while fanning opposition to nuclear power in Western Europe and Australia, and to their policy of stepping in with nuclear supplies when the United States will not or cannot provide them.

As a "barrier to proliferation" the report proposes unilateral U.S. "deemphasis of nuclear weapons in military policy, particularly doctrines that present nuclear weapons as acceptable and necessary armaments for limited application or political pressure."

Now, to deemphasize nuclear weapons in military policy is as strange as deemphasizing jet planes in aviation policy, but stranger still is the reference to a purported doctrine of using nuclear weapons for political pressure. To this writer's knowledge, such a doctrine never existed in the Pentagon; where such an accusation can be found with monotonous regularity is on the pages of Pravda.

When the United States found itself short of enrichment capacity in 1974 and refused to enter into further long-term enrichment contracts with Western Europe and Japan, the USSR was quick to step forward: "Bring us your uranium, friends, and we will enrich it for you." The episode led to (unsuccessful) efforts to increase U.S. enrichment capacity, to accelerated efforts by other countries (Western Europe and South Africa) to develop their own enrichment capability, and to efforts by purchasing countries (Brazil and others) to look for more reliable sources of uranium enrichment.

That's the way, the report seems to say. U.S. enrichment capacity, says the report, is now quite sufficient, and "the fact that a number of countries will be able to furnish enrichment services should provide further confidence of assured supplies." The total free world capacity will soon be more than needed, it claims, and as a clincher, it adds: "The Soviet Union also has excess capacity and is selling enrichment services to the world market." So rest assured, ye breeder-bent and fuel-hungry: your energy future lies in the trustworthy hands of the Soviet Politburo.


If there is a way to prevent proliferation and terrorism other than cringing from leadership and responsibility, the report does not mention it. Which is not to say there is no way.

A political problem must be solved by political means—as the authors of this contradiction-ridden report quite rightly observe before advocating technological-ostrichism as a cop-out. What has given the world a feeling of insecurity and what has emboldened terrorists, blackmailers, and the rulers of the Soviet Empire is not the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder but the softness and defeatism of the West.

A country that cringes from the benefits of its largest energy reserve will cringe from more painful responsibilities, and an insecure world may well look for better security in nuclear weapons. A country that understands energy policy as the optimum compromise in a popularity contest will not have the respect of either allies or adversaries; it will lose its energy, and its self-respect in the bargain. A government that lets a billion-dollar nuclear plant be put in limbo to accommodate vociferous obstructionists ostensibly seeking to protect clam larvae is no match for nuclear terrorists, and the lesson will not be lost on them.

What is needed, if one wants to talk proliferation (rather than nuclear electric power), is a little spine: a no-nonsense policy that says: Yes, we want to have the full benefits of nuclear energy, and we will face up to our full responsibilities; we will share both with our allies and give them stronger security than nuclear bombs can provide; we shall spare no effort to make plutonium technology safe and to keep it out of terrorists hands; but should we fail on occasions, we will pay the price and refuse to budge, knowing that a small concession today means unbearable losses tomorrow.

That is language tyrants and terrorists understand, but it is not spoken by those who know only appeasement, retreat, and capitulation.

None of which has even the slightest connection with the technological aspects of nuclear power; it is the Ford Foundation's study that attempts to bludgeon the two into a mismatched marriage.

What is one to make of this document, couched in seemingly cool objectivity, but in fact consisting of arguments convolved into a verbose string of erroneous and contradictory irrelevance?

In the Middle Ages, the wheel was used as an instrument of torture and execution. What a pity the Ford Foundation was not around in the Stone Age to commission a study: it might have had sufficient wisdom to propose the banning of the wheel.

Dr. Petr Beckmann, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, publishes the monthly newsletter Access to Energy (Box 2298, Boulder, CO 80302). He is the author of several books, the latest, The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear.