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Alexander: Turning Nuclear Swords Into Energy Plowshares

During the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons threatening each other. It was a dangerous point in history for sure, but as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States and newly formed Russian Federation began to look for ways to cooperate. One way was to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and the dangerous material in them, particularly highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

In addressing this problem, both countries managed to turn a national security threat into a clean energy source. The two nations did this by signing the HEU Purchase Agreement in 1993, which gave financial incentive to the Russians to dismantle nuclear weapons, dilute the HEU in those weapons to make low-enriched uranium and sell that LEU nuclear fuel to American power companies to be burned in nuclear reactors. Currently, 10 percent of our electricity comes from this material — material that at one time threatened the American public.

As HEU was downblended into LEU and burned in reactors, stockpiles of plutonium began getting larger. So in 2000, the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement, which called for each nation to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. This agreement was reaffirmed in 2011. To put in different terms, 68 metric tons of plutonium is equivalent to approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons — an amazing number of nuclear arms that will no longer threaten the world.

The U.S. is building a facility that supports this agreement with Russia. When completed, it will take this nuclear-weapon-grade plutonium and convert it to a form that will be burned in civilian reactors, just as the Russian HEU is being burned in U.S. reactors. It’s called the mixed-oxide project and will combine plutonium oxide with uranium oxide into fuel assemblies to be used in U.S. reactors. This National Nuclear Security Administration program will change the composition of the plutonium ensuring it can never be used in a nuclear weapon again.

By disposing of the plutonium, fabricating it into MOX fuel and irradiating it in commercial reactors, we can be sure this material will be unsuitable for nuclear weapons. Guarding nuclear material is enormously expensive, and plutonium’s half-life is more than 24,100 years.

MOX fuel has been used safely around the world for decades. When produced, just one MOX fuel assembly can provide enough electricity to power 9,000 homes for one year. One energy consulting firm calculated in 2009 that 32.5 metric tons of plutonium when converted into MOX fuel can supply 1.7 million households, or 4.4 million people, electricity for approximately nine years.

Currently, the NNSA is working with the Tennessee Valley Authority to finalize a fuel supply agreement for MOX fuel. The NNSA is completing a supplemental environmental impact statement in which the TVA is a cooperating agency. In addition, the NNSA is consulting with various nuclear fuel companies to have them market MOX fuel to their utility customers.

These issues unite Republicans and Democrats. More than 20 years ago, two leading bipartisan statesmen showed us the way with swords to plowshares programs. Then-Sens. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., ensured the U.S. had the strongest military we possibly could, but at the same time, worked with Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton on groundbreaking cooperative threat reduction with the Russians. This important work not only destroyed conventional weapons but secured nuclear material and weapons.

We need to keep that bipartisan spirit alive as the U.S. moves forward with a solution to our plutonium problem. Let’s continue supporting turning this material, a serious national security threat, into a clean energy source for our country. That means continuing with the U.S. plutonium disposition program and the MOX project — something that I strongly support. I hope the Obama administration’s proposed budget, which my committee will review in weeks, will reflect his continued support for these critical national security — and energy security — programs.

Rep. Rodney Alexander represents the 5th District of Louisiana and serves on the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee.

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