Columbia, SC — President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s historic “Atoms for Peace” address to the U.N. General Assembly nearly 60 years ago laid the foundation for turning nuclear swords into plowshares for the benefit of mankind. We have made great progress toward achieving that goal, and several imperatives should be considered as we strive to reach the finish line.
The first should be completing construction of the mixed-oxide facility at the Savannah River Site. Although the plutonium-to-MOX plant is 60 percent complete and more than $4 billion already has been spent on construction, the Obama administration’s 2014 budget request to Congress would slash $133 million, or 29 percent, from the project’s budget. Unless Congress approves full funding for the MOX plant, its cost will increase and the timetable for its completion will stretch out.
Converting plutonium into MOX — thereby reducing the nuclear weapons stockpile — is a must. If we fail to do our part to implement the disarmament agreement with Russia, then Russia may abandon its own plutonium-reduction program. That would jeopardize disarmament accords that were reached after years of negotiation, and it could trigger a new and costly arms race and open up Russia’s plutonium stockpile to theft and possible nuclear terrorism.
The second imperative is to move forward with construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants using advanced technology. A good start has been made with five new reactors being built in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Carbon-free energy from these plants will help meet increasing demand for electricity and replace aging coal plants.
The third imperative is for the Department of Energy to work with states to establish interim facilities for the storage of high-level nuclear waste and used fuel, so waste won’t be scattered at nuclear plants across the country. In the meantime, the search needs to proceed for a suitable site to hold a permanent deep geologic waste repository, one that would be acceptable to a state government.
The right path forward is the one Eisenhower envisioned more than a half-century ago: turning megatons into megawatts. The success that the United States and Russia have had so far in reducing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium shows that the same can be done with plutonium.