The United States is facing some big questions when it comes to nuclear power. Since Hiroshima, it has always been tough to talk about splitting the atom without generating big questions, but there is no doubt that the US is at a turning point, and a decision has to made.
The focus of this decision? Enrichment.
The threads of history coming together to force this decision are threefold. First, there is the issue of disarmament. Just how many nukes do we want/need? Second, nuclear power: what percentage of our electrical power ought to derive from fission and how to deal with the resulting waste? Third, treaties: what expense will the US be willing to tolerate in order to avoid violating its agreements with other countries.
The first issue is a sticky one. It brings up the entire bugbear of Cold War nuclear aggression. It divides the population on the issue of military funding and security, and it requires some budgetary maneuvering. No one wants to die in a nuclear war. That much is obvious, and no nuclear bombs means no nuclear war. Unfortunately, no country possessing nuclear weapons has shown any inclination to voluntarily give up all of their devices, and the (wonderful) fact that the US and Russia have been able to reduce their nuclear arsenals does not provide much hope that they will eliminate them entirely. Thus, the issue of power parity among both the greater and lesser potential nuclear aggressors must be addressed. The US, along with others, cannot neglect to plan for the size of its future arsenal, be it smaller or larger. It therefore must make estimates about its future supply of enriched uranium and make detailed plans for maintaining the supply chain that provides the stock.
This leads directly to the issue of nuclear power. Some argue that the cost of producing weapons grade fissionable material can be justified by the fact that the same process can be used to produce reactor grade material. If the US wants the securest of supply chains for such material, it makes the most sense to rely on US facilities for enrichment, securing both the domestic energy supply and nuclear arsenal. However, this may not always make economic sense for private energy providers. As long as prices for fission alternatives like natural gas remain low, nuclear power, especially the initial investment in the construction of the plant, can be difficult to justify. Add to this the objection many communities have to such facilities near their homes, the unresolved questions of how and where to dispose of waste material, and the permitting issues that can so easily delay or derail such a project, and it makes the investment seem extraordinarily costly when other reactors around the world are already generating the necessary material. Thus, the cost and security concerns are not so easily balanced.
Finally, there is the issue of treaties. The United States has agreed that it will not make use of enrichment technology developed abroad within US borders. This agreement necessitates that the US either develop its own enrichment processes from scratch or purchase material enriched abroad. This agreement necessitates that the US either develop its own enrichment processes from scratch or purchase material enriched abroad. USEC, a US based enrichment concern, has brought this issue to the forefront with its recent appeal for government funding. ($2 billion worth) This again raises the cost-security balance, as many of the processes initially developed in the United States at the beginning of the nuclear age are now less efficient than those since developed overseas. Should the United States invest the tens or hundreds of billions required to develop all new processes at home, or can it trust the world market to provide a sufficient supply, even in times of reduced amity abroad? What would be the ramifications of simply ignoring the treaties and secretly enriching uranium at home in whatever way is cheapest?
All of these questions come on the heels of one of the most successful programs in the history of disarmament, the Megatons to Megawatts program, recently eulogized in the New York Times. This program allowed the United States to purchase enormous quantities of reactor grade U-235 from the former Soviet Union’s arsenal. Suddenly facing the confluence of a variety of historical trends, all leading to a potential scarcity of highly enriched uranium, the US must make some hard choices about its nuclear future, unfortunately in an era during which hard choices, at least at the Congressional level, seem to go unmade at the risk of potentially disastrous outcomes. If this indecision continues, the US faces not only a potential shortage of enriched uranium for its nuclear arsenal, but also a policy vacuum on the entire issue. Furthermore, if enrichment technology and practices are perceived to be neglected, the United States risks losing researchers and academics in the field to countries with more clearly developed programs.
This post originally stated that reactors were purpose built to provide Pu-239, a statement which, at the very least, is debatable, and which was, therefore, removed.