The Vallecitos Nuclear Center, the site of a former General Electric electricity-generating nuclear power plant.
The Bay Area Is Sitting on a Nuclear Time Bomb
Alan Kuperman / San Francisco Chronicle
SUNOL, Calif. (July 2, 2020) — Quiet as it’s kept, close to San Francisco sits a commercial facility with enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon — on the scale of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
General Electric Hitachi owns the Nuclear Test Reactor in Sunol, between Fremont and Pleasanton.
Like facilities at some universities, the reactor’s main activity is neutron radiography, which enables clients to look inside objects without destroying them. But this reactor contains at least 7 pounds of highly enriched uranium, the same material used in the Hiroshima bomb.
For a civilian facility in the age of violent extremism, this is extraordinary.
As far back as 1986, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered all such reactors it oversees, including this one, to convert to low-enriched uranium fuel, which is unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
Since then, all of the 23 civilian reactors able to convert to the safer fuel either have done so or have shut down — except the GE Hitachi reactor.
There is no technical obstacle to converting the reactor to the safer fuel and removing the bomb-grade stuff to a high-security government facility. Eight years ago, the National Academy of Sciences reported that “suitable fuel has been identified.” The US government is so worried about highly enriched uranium that it has converted reactors possessing as little as 2 pounds of it.
So, why does the GE Hitachi reactor still use weapons-grade uranium?
Neither the company nor the government will say.
The main obstacle appears to be who would pay to remove and store the material securely.
Typically, the US government is prohibited from accepting commercial nuclear waste, but it can grant a temporary “national security exemption” if the customer pays, which GE Hitachi reportedly refuses to do.
A similar problem was overcome in 2010 for a facility near San Diego owned by General Atomics. The company agreed to pay the government to provide interim storage until a commercial nuclear-waste repository can open. The US government worked with the company to remove the bomb-grade material. The chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission offered praise for “federal and state agencies working well together to ensure the safe and secure use of radioactive materials.”
Unfortunately, such responsible company stewardship is absent at Sunol.
GE Hitachi appears content to put us all at risk by using unnecessary bomb-grade uranium until someone else funds its removal. This spring, the US Department of Energy told GE Hitachi that funding will not be available for fuel conversion in fiscal year 2020. The government refuses to provide safer fuel until the company pays to remove the dangerous batch.
Meanwhile, the danger of nuclear terrorism hovers over the Bay Area. Last year, two intruders jumped the site’s security fence. The break-in was resolved without incident, and the suspects were detained, but we may not be so lucky next time.
It is time for Californians to end this hazard. The quickest way to get GE Hitachi’s attention would be for residents to demand that the reactor be shut down permanently unless its bomb-grade fuel is removed by next year.
Absent such pressure, the Bay Area can only hope that the next break-in at Sunol does not lead to a mushroom cloud.
Alan Kuperman is the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.