Jon Lamb / Gas & Oil.com & The Japan Times / Kyodo News Service – 2006-04-18 09:37:57
Bush Plans to Enrich Uraniuim
Jon Lamb / Gas & Oil.com
WASHINGTON (March 22, 2006) — On February 6, US President George Bush confirmed his intention to commit the US to a program of reprocessing nuclear fuel.
Touted as a key measure in the ”Advanced Energy Initiative”, outlined in Bush’s January State of the Union speech, the plutonium extracted from spent fuel is allegedly to be used as a fuel source for a new generation of nuclear power plants across the US and elsewhere.
The proposal will overturn a 29-year ban in the US on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, implemented in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter as a gesture of the US’s commitment to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation.
The ban was also motivated by the failure of the West Valley reprocessing facility in New York, which was closed down in 1972 after six years of operation and only processing a fraction of the nuclear waste sent there. The clean-up of this site continues, at a cost in excess of $ 5 billion.
Bush has requested that Congress approve $ 250 mm in the 2007 budget as the first instalment on a program to develop the technology and facilities for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Through the establishment of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), Bush claims that the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation will be significantly reduced and that the program will facilitate “the expansion of civilian nuclear power in the United States and encourage civilian nuclear power in foreign countries to evolve in a more
Despite the massive environmental dangers associated with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and the potential for this program to significantly expand Washington’s capabilities for waging nuclear warfare, Bush said on February 18: “As America and other nations build more nuclear power plants, we must work together to address two challenges: We must dispose of nuclear waste safely, and we must keep nuclear technology and material out of the hands of terrorist networks and terrorist states.”
Bush explained that the US plans tobegin the construction of new reactors for power generation by the end of the decade. US
undersecretary of state for arms control and international security Robert Joseph was reported on February 18 as stating that the GNEP aims to “prevent future Iran”, a reference to the hyped-up claims of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons production capabilities.
According to the US Department of Energy (DOE) GNEP website, the process will go something like this: the US, along with advanced nuclear countries such as Russia and Japan (“fuel supplier nations”), will enrich uranium and provide it to developing countries (“user nations”), who will commit to not develop their own enrichment programs. The supplier nations will also provide technology in the form of new generation reactors or small-scale reactors.
The spent fuel will be returned by the user nation for reprocessing, where the plutonium will be extracted and used in fuel for (the yet to be developed) advanced burner reactors and waste will be stored in waste depositories in the supplier nations. The DOE has already set aside 17.4 tons of highly enriched uranium to establish the “fuel bank” for the GNEP.
Windfall for Nukes Industry
In addition to the GNEP funding, Bush has requested that $ 347 mm be made available for nuclear power research and development, an increase of 55 % on the 2006 budget. The spending boom earmarked for nuclear technology will give a leg-up to the ailing nuclear power industry in the US, where 103 reactors currently generate 20 % of electricity. Bush wants the US to emulate France, where nuclear reactors generate 78 % of electricity needs.
“We didn’t think nuclear was going to come this hard and fast”, Andrew White, chief executive of General Electric Nuclear, stated on February 18. According to White, GE Nuclear, a division of the GE Energy unit, is expected to double or treble its income within the next decade.
White believes that as many as 200 reactors will be built in the US within the next century, to replace thecurrent reactors and meet the expected increase in demand for electricity. The nuclear slush fund provided by the White House has given greater certainty to GE and other companies that build reactors.
Bush’s latest pro-nuclear proclamations follow the energy bill passed last August, which committed $ 2 bn and tax-break incentives to assist energy companies develop the first six next-generation nuclear reactors. It is estimated that between 1948 and 1998 more than $66 billion was spent on nuclear energy research and subsidies. The bill for the reprocessing component of GNEP is likely to rapidly grow — in 1996 the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the cost of reprocessing irradiated fuel from US reactors would easily exceed $ 100 bn.
Next Generation Nukes
The reprocessing of nuclear fuel from other nations and from within the US means that the US government will have access to (and control over) an exceptional amount of plutonium, with the potential for use in next generation nuclear weapons (like the “bunker-buster”) that Bush and Pentagon officials are keen to develop. Bush has requested $ 27.7 mm to be spent on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
A January 31 press release by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) notes that “reprocessing just the spent fuel rods produced by US reactors in one year would result in some 20 tons of plutonium — enough to build over 3,000 nuclear weapons”.
Wherever reprocessing has taken place, it has resulted in huge amounts of radioactive waste and major environmental degradation in and around the facilities involved. The Sellafield plant in Britain is responsible for converting large parts of the Irish Sea into a biologically dead body of water. Another infamous example is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation located in south-central Washington. Established in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project for the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapons, a large quantity of weapons-grade plutonium was produced at the site for decades.
The 1,518 sq km site is a toxic contaminated wasteland of immense proportion. About 53 mm gallons of highly radioactive and chemical waste are stored in 177 underground tanks, each the size of a three-storey building. At least 70 of the tanks have ruptured, leaking an estimated 1 mm gallons of waste into the surrounding soil and groundwater. The adjoining Columbia River is considered to be the most nuclear-polluted river in the Western hemisphere.
The cost of cleaning up radioactive waste at Handford has been revised upwards in the last five years from $ 4.3 bn in 2000 — when the contract was awarded to Bechtel (which plans to vitrify the waste into glass logs) — to a massive $ 50-$ 60 bn, with completion of works by 2035. Bush administration and DOE representatives claim that the Uranium Extraction Plus (or Urex+) method of reprocessing will reduce the volume of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. Yet this is strongly contested by US scientists and anti-nuclear advocates.
According to the UCS, “reprocessing does not reduce the need for storage and disposal of radioactive waste, and a geological repository would still be required. Plutonium constitutes only about 1 % of the spent fuel from US reactors. After reprocessing, the remaining material will be in several different waste forms, and the total volume of nuclear waste will have been increased by a factor of twenty or more,
including low-level waste and plutonium contaminated waste.”
Furthermore, “to make a significant reduction in the amount of high-level nuclear waste that would require disposal, the used fuel would need to be reprocessed and reused many times with an extremely high degree of efficiency — which is very expensive and would take years.
For example, in 1999, the Department of Energy estimated it would cost $ 279 bn over a 118-year period to fully implement a
reprocessing and recycling program for the entire inventory of US spent fuel.”
The UCS also points out that previous research by DOE scientists Dr E.D. Collins and Dr Bruce Godwin contradict the claim that the Urex+ method is “proliferation resistant”.
Collin’s research for the DOE’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative highlights that the plutonium mixture produced by a process like Urex+ generates a much lower dosage rate of radiation than the conventional Purex method used elsewhere, making it easier to handle and thus easier to steal.
Godwin explained in a workshop in 1999 on nuclear fuel that “Examination of various cycles and the opinions of weapons-design experts lead to the conclusion that there is no ‘proliferation-proof’ nuclear power cycle”. According to UCS senior scientist Dr Edwin Lyman, the research of Collins and Godwin “clearly demonstrates that the administration’s new reprocessing program will pose a serious risk that terrorists could acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon from a US facility”.
A Mountain of Waste
The DOE plans to consolidate all of the stockpiled nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain waste disposal site located in Nevada. With the prospect of a large number of new nuclear reactors being built in the US in the next 90 years, there will be even more pressure to dispose of the nuclear waste from power plants — presently around 55,000 tons of waste and quickly approaching the legally allowable limit for Yucca Mountain (which at the earliest will be operational in 2015).
Philip Finck, the deputy associate laboratory director for Argonne National Laboratory, told a Congressional hearing last year that he
expected the increase in the number of nuclear power plants would mean that the “US will need up to nine Yucca Mountain-type repositories by the end of this century”.
Environmental activists and Nevada state officials strongly oppose the Yucca Mountain facility and are worried that the GNEP and
reprocessing plan for spent fuel will further increase the risks of accidents and radioactive pollution.
Bob Loux, who heads up the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects also believes that “the only reason that they’re proposing reprocessing is Yucca Mountain is failing”.
US Aims To Up Nuclear Warhead Production Capability to 250 a Year
The Japan Times / Kyodo News Service
WASHINGTON (April 16, 2006) — The United States envisions a plan to establish an annual production capability of 250 nuclear warheads in a bid to be prepared for possible contingencies in the future, a senior US administration official said.
The plan also calls for promoting development of new types of warheads in a five-year cycle to continuously replace existing ones, the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) official said on condition of anonymity.
The official also said the new type, called the reliable replacement warhead, or RRW, which is now being studied for submarine-launched ballistic missiles in place of the current W-76 warhead, could also be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The move shows that the NNSA is contemplating twice the contingency production capability more than what it has publicly stated.
In a congressional hearing early this month, NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Thomas D’Agostino said the agency plans a “baseline production capacity of 125 (plutonium) pits per year to the stockpile by 2022.”
The five-year development cycle means the administration will continue to develop new types of RRW after it successfully produces the one for replacing the W-76 warhead.
The NNSA official said, “Every five years we would go through a cycle . . . research, development, production, retirement, dismantlement.”
The Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are expected to “establish technical feasibility” of developing the RRW without the resumption of nuclear tests, he said.
Iran Could Produce Nuclear Bomb in 16 Days, US Says
Sebastian Alison / Bloomberg
MOSCOW (April 12, 2006) — Iran, defying United Nations Security Council demands to halt its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days, a US State Department official said.
Iran will move to “industrial scale” uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges at its Natanz plant, the Associated Press quoted deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saeedi as telling state-run television today.
“Using those 50,000 centrifuges they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days,” Stephen Rademaker, US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters today in Moscow.
Rademaker was reacting to a statement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said yesterday the country had succeeded in enriching uranium on a small scale for the first time, using 164 centrifuges. That announcement defies demands by the UN Security Council that Iran shut down its nuclear program this month.
The US fears Iran is pursuing a nuclear program to make weapons, while Iran says it is intent on purely civilian purposes, to provide energy. Saeedi said 54,000 centrifuges will be able to enrich uranium to provide fuel for a 1,000-megawat nuclear power plant similar to the one Russia is finishing in southern Iran, AP reported.
“It was a deeply disappointing announcement,” Rademaker said of Ahmadinejad’s statement.
Rademaker said the technology to enrich uranium to a low level could also be used to make weapons-grade uranium, saying that it would take a little over 13 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon with the 164 centrifuges currently in use. The process involves placing uranium hexafluoride gas in a series of rotating drums or cylinders known as centrifuges that run at high speeds to extract weapons grade uranium.
Iran has informed the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to construct 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz next year, Rademaker said.
“We calculate that a 3,000-machine cascade could produce enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon within 271 days,” he said.
While the US has concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, Rademaker said “there certainly has been no decision on the part of my government” to use force if Iran refuses to obey the UN Security Council demand that it shuts down its nuclear program.
Rademaker is in Moscow for a meeting of his counterparts from the Group of Eight wealthy industrialized countries. Russia chairs the G-8 this year.
China is concerned about Iran’s decision to accelerate uranium enrichment and wants the government in Tehran to heed international criticism of the move, Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the United Nations said.
Analysts Say a Nuclear Iran Is Years Away
William J. Broad, Nazila Fathi & Joel Brinkley / New York Times
(April 13, 2006) — Western nuclear analysts said yesterday that Tehran lacked the skills, materials and equipment to make good on its immediate nuclear ambitions, even as a senior Iranian official said Iran would defy international pressure and rapidly expand its ability to enrich uranium for fuel.
The official, Muhammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, said Iran would push quickly to put 54,000 centrifuges on line ˜ a vast increase from the 164 they said Tuesday that they had used to enrich uranium to levels that could fuel a nuclear reactor.
Still, nuclear analysts called the claims exaggerated. They said nothing had changed to alter current estimates of when Iran might be able to make a single nuclear weapon, assuming that is its ultimate goal. The United States government has put that at 5 to 10 years, and some analysts have said it could come as late as 2020.
Iran’s announcement brought criticism from several Western Nations and to a lesser degree from Russia and China. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for “strong steps” against Iran, using the country’s clear statement of defiance to persuade reluctant countries like Russia and China to support tough international penalties. But Russian officials said they had not changed their opposition to such penalties.
Nuclear analysts said Iran’s boast that it had enriched uranium using 164 centrifuges meant that it had now moved one small but significant step beyond what it had been ready to do nearly three years ago, when it agreed to suspend enrichment while negotiating the fate of its nuclear program.
“They’re hyping it,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, a private group that monitors the Iranian nuclear program. “There’s still a lot they have to do.” Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. al-Rodhan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington called the new Iranian claims “little more than vacuous political posturing” meant to promote Iranian nationalism and a global sense of atomic inevitability.
The nuclear experts said Iran’s claim on Wednesday that it would mass-produce 54,000 centrifuges echoed boasts that it made years ago. Even so, they noted, the Islamic state still lacked the parts and materials to make droves of the highly complex machines, which can spin uranium into fuel rich enough for use in nuclear reactors or atom bombs.
It took Tehran 21 years of planning and 7 years of sporadic experiments, mostly in secret, to reach its current ability to link 164 spinning centrifuges in what nuclear experts call a cascade. Now, the analysts said, Tehran has to achieve not only consistent results around the clock for many months and years but even higher degrees of precision and mass production. It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison.
On Wednesday, Mr. Saeedi, the Iranian nuclear official, said Iran was moving rapidly toward its atomic goals. “We will expand uranium enrichment to industrial scale at Natanz,” he was quoted as saying by the ISNA student news agency in a reference to Iran’s main enrichment facility. Mr. Saeedi said Iran would start operating the first of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by late 2006, with further expansion to 54,000 centrifuges. “We have no problem in doing that,” he told ISNA. “We just need to increase our production lines.”
The news from Iran, which holds 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, has made oil markets very nervous in recent days and contributed to a spike in oil prices to nearly $70 a barrel on Tuesday. Oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange closed at $68.62 a barrel yesterday, just $2 short of their record after Hurricane Katrina.
Since the beginning of the year, the diplomatic crisis has prompted fears that Iran might be tempted to restrict its oil sales, provoking a price spike that would cause economic havoc around the world. Iranian officials have repeatedly said they might use their country’s “oil weapon” in a confrontation with the West. But, as is often the case in Iranian politics, such statements were just as rapidly offset by more reassuring comments from the Oil Ministry that Iran would not use its oil exports as a bargaining chip with the West.
More realistically, many traders fear that any international penalties against Iran might hurt Iran’s oil industry, slow investments, or remove sorely needed barrels from oil-hungry markets.
The Russian stance against penalties highlighted the obstacles Washington faces in its effort to force a halt to Iran’s nuclear program. A senior aide to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said yesterday that any effort to employ broad penalties against Tehran would backfire because “Iran’s current president will use them for his benefit, and he will use them to consolidate public opinion around him.”
The United States is urging members of the United Nations Security Council to approve travel and financial restrictions on Iran’s leaders, and administration officials view Russia, which has close trade ties to Iran, as the linchpin of those efforts.
Secretary of State Conodoleezza Rice said yesterday that the Security Council must consider “strong steps” to induce Iran to change course. “The Security Council will need to take into consideration this move by Iran,” she said about Tuesday’s announcement. “It will be time when it reconvenes on this case for strong steps to make certain that we maintain the credibility of the international community.”
In Iran on Tuesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in an elaborate ceremony that Iranian scientists had enriched uranium to 3.5 percent ˜ a level of purity that, if enough could be made, might fuel a nuclear reactor. While Iran hailed the step as a first, the nuclear experts said Tehran had in fact been doing periodic enrichment experiments with centrifuges for seven years, since 1999.
Amid the tensions, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Tehran yesterday for talks with Iranian nuclear officials. Despite the provocative nature of Iran’s statements, he still held out hope that the government could be persuaded to compromise. “We hope to convince Iran to take confidence-building measures including suspension of uranium enrichment activities until outstanding issues are clarified,” Dr. ElBaradei told journalists at the Tehran airport, Reuters reported.
Iran’s state-run television was dominated by programs about the atomic claim in what seemed like an organized effort to mobilize public support for the nuclear program. One channel showed a reporter stopping people on the street to ask if they had bought pastry to celebrate the news.
Another showed nuclear sites and uranium mines. Television news said schools celebrated the success and rebroadcast the announcement of Iran’s president hailing the enrichment step.
While Iran has sharply raised its atomic claims in the past two days, nuclear analysts said it appeared to be roughly where it was expected to be on the road to learning how to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, and still had years of work ahead of it to attain its ambitious goals.
Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said he was not surprised that the Iranians had got a group of 164 centrifuges up and running and had begun to introduce uranium gas into them for enrichment.
“There’s still a lot they have to do,” he said, to perfect the operation of the cascade of centrifuges. A report that he and his colleagues made public late last month suggested that Iran would need 6 to 12 months to master that process, and Mr. Albright said in an interview that he stood by that rough estimate as accurate.
His March report said Iran had parts for perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 centrifuges beyond the ones already in operation, and that Iran is not likely to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon until 2009 at the earliest.
Several Western nations criticized Iran’s recent announcements as needlessly provocative.
Foreign Minister Jack Straw of Britain said they were “deeply unhelpful,” and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Iran was “going in precisely the wrong direction.” Russia and China joined the chorus, but their criticisms were qualified.
“For China, we are concerned about the events and the way things are developing,” said Wang Guamgya, China’s ambassador to the United Nations. But he added, “In spite of this, I believe diplomatic efforts are still under way.”
In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called Iran’s push to expand uranium enrichment “a step in the wrong direction.”
But Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov later tempered that. He inveighed against any possible military action against Iran and advised against a rush to judgment, saying Iran had “never stated that it is striving to possess nuclear weapons.”
Jad Mouawad contributed reporting from New York for this article.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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