President Obama plans to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24-25. He has long professed a keen interest in reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. In 2009, in his notable Prague speech, Obama declared, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the cold war.” He vowed “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”
Rhetorically, at least, Obama has stayed the course. But some of his actions suggest that, in reality, he is very prepared to alter course for political and budgetary reasons.
One of his first actions as president was to start the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, in a political nod to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
But spent fuel from civilian power reactors does not pose as great a threat of proliferation as plutonium, the man-made fissile metal that is at the heart of a modern thermonuclear weapon. And it is plutonium that worries experts like former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
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Plutonium is basically forever: it has a half life of 24,100 years. There is a terrifying amount of it in the world, mostly the result of decommissioning warheads. Some of it is stored; some is still in warheads waiting to be decommissioned.
The United States and Russia have been working on that problem, in what has been a successful collaboration. Under a treaty signed in 2000, and amended in 2010, the United States and Russia have agreed to get rid of 34 metric tons each of plutonium that has come from a reduction in weapons stockpiles.
The United States agreed to do this mostly by burning it as fuel in civilian power reactors, something the French already do. This fuel, known as mixed oxide, or MOX, blends plutonium with uranium to make new fuel for the reactors. The Russians are developing fast neutron reactors to burn up their plutonium.
To keep our part of the bargain, a fuel fabrication facility is under construction at the government's Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C. As buildings go, it is a marvel, with concrete walls 5-feet-thick and huge quantities ultra-high-quality steel, welded with the greatest precision. The whole structure could last for thousands of years – just remember that Coliseum in Rome was made of concrete 2,000 years ago.
But the project -- which has more than 4,000 suppliers in 43 states and 1,800 directly employed workers -- is suddenly being put on “cold standby,” a euphemism for abandoned. The explanation from the U.S. Department of Energy is that the project is costing too much.
South Carolina is suing the U.S. Department of Energy, claiming the shutdown is unconstitutional because money authorized and appropriated for construction this year will be used to terminate the project. The facility is 60-percent complete and $4.5 billion has been spent; it is estimated that shutdown will cost a further $1 billion.
Seven senators -- including Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chair of the Senate Energy Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -- have protested the abrupt and unexpected change of policy on plutonium disposal.
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In the early days of Obama's first term, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told me that the administration was shutting down the Yucca Mountain site for “scientific reasons,” after the expenditure of $18 billion.
On March 12, I asked Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a top Obama non-proliferation aide, to explain the change of policy on MOX. Echoing Gibbs, she said that the administration was expecting to find better scientific solutions.
But what about the joint agreement with the Russians that MOX was the way to go, after considering 40 options? In fact Obama has changed course for budgetary reasons, and possibly to appease anti-nuclear forces in his base.
It would seem that when it comes to straightening out the nuclear waste issue, Obama is compromised by his own hand.
So what will he say at the summit in The Hague? Will he have the effrontery to commit the United States again to an aggressive anti-proliferation policy? This despite the fact that he scuttled Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, and now has scuttled the chance of burning up plutonium.
By Llewellyn King