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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 07:19 pm

Illinois in running to host nuclear waste reprocessing facility

Critic says it could bring “a wagon train of dirty bombs” through Illinois

The current nuclear fuel system, represented by the top row of symbols here, sends spent nuclear fuel to a “geologic repository.” Under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan, the spent fuel would be reprocessed and recycled.
Chart courtesy Department of Energy

Illinois could become more radioactive than a Rod Blagojevich Senate appointee under a little-talked-about Bush administration energy initiative to create the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Already home to more nuclear facilities than any other state in the nation, Illinois is one of 11 states in the running to host a national spent fuel reprocessing center proposed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP.

The proposed Illinois site is the General Electric Morris plant near Joliet, currently used to store nuclear waste and, if approved, would receive waste from nuclear facilities across the nation, likely via Illinois’ numerous rail lines.

There, leftover plutonium and other materials would be removed to generate additional power. But plutonium extraction has become the main sticking point for environmentalists and those with concerns about weapons proliferation.

Dr. Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Federation of American Scientists, visited Illinois recently to lobby against GNEP, which he characterizes as too costly, politically implausible and dangerous.

“If you woke up today and said, ‘I’m going to build a nuclear reactor, it would be 20 years before you got any power out of it,” Oelrich offers. In the meantime, he believes, the U.S. should pursue alternative energy solutions.

President Jimmy Carter outlawed the practice of plutonium extraction in 1977. Ronald Reagan later lifted the ban but U.S. companies have since declined to engage in the practice. In 2006 the DOE awarded $16 million in grants to 11 commercial and public organizations, including $1.48 million to GE Morris to conduct site studies for proposed reprocessing centers.

Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace in Washington, D.C., says GNEP would create a “wagon train of dirty bombs” through Illinois that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Security remains the primary concern for Oelrich, a former defense department analyst. The average nuclear reactor produces enough plutonium to make about 40 nuclear bombs, he explains. In normal processing, plutonium is contained in used highly radioactive fuel rods.

“You wouldn’t steal one because it would kill you,” he says. “When [plutonium is] separated out, it’s millions of times less radioactive and much more concentrated so it’s much easier to steal or divert.”

Besides, no U.S. company has ever built a commercially successful fast neutron reactor, which means any such project would have to be heavily subsidized by the federal government or consumers will be charged more for electricity, changing the nature of the U.S. electricity market, Oelrich says.

Greenpeace’s Riccio believes Barack Obama should dismantle GNEP when he takes office in January.

“There are better ways to boil water,” he says. “I don’t see the need to expand nuclear.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinositmes.com

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