Disclosure of massive exposure of workers to plutonium-laced dust at a Department of Energy uranium processing plant provides fair warning of the dangers ahead in DOE's plan to convert plutonium from retired warheads into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants ["In Harm's Way, and in the Dark," front page, Aug. 8].
These exposures took place decades ago but were covered up until now -- proof that the bureaucratic culture of the Department of Energy remains dangerously locked in the Cold War era and cannot be depended on to deal honestly with the American people on the hazards of current plans.
The department is negotiating an agreement with Russia to convert most of 50 tons of plutonium from retired warheads on each side into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants rather than to dispose of all the highly radiotoxic material as waste. A new plant is to be built at the department's Savannah River site in South Carolina to combine the plutonium with uranium into so-called mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in six power reactors in North and South Carolina and Virginia -- including plants on the outskirts of the District and Charlotte, N.C.
The Department of Energy consistently has understated the safety and security risks of this plan. At first, it denied any appreciable risk to the public in running plutonium MOX fuel through these reactors; now it reluctantly acknowledges Nuclear Control Institute data that up to 15 percent more people would die of cancer in the event of a severe accident with MOX fuel (still short of our projection of 25 percent) compared with conventional uranium fuel. The risks are even greater in Russia, where reactors fall far short of Western safety standards.
Beyond the dangers of processing and using MOX fuel, security and proliferation risks associated with introducing so much warhead plutonium into commerce are heightened. The Department of Energy also denies these dangers.
Nuclear Control Institute