Prevent the Massive Release of Radioactive Material

From the Foundation's 1995 Annual Report


Since the beginning of the atomic age, peace and the environment have been threatened by more than nuclear weapons. Accidents at nuclear power facilities, failure to store and dispose of nuclear waste properly, increasing stocks of separated plutonium, and potential use of radioactive materials for hostile purposes all pose grave risks. The Foundation seeks to reduce each of these risks.

Prevent Nuclear Accidents

Over 400 nuclear reactors operate in about 30 different countries around the world. The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl demonstrated that nuclear power accidents can devastate wide areas of the environment and affect the livelihoods, health, and well-being of the public regardless of their political boundaries. In 1995, negotiations were held to shut down the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where two dangerous reactors continue to operate. In December, the G-7 and Ukraine signed a memorandum of understanding for closure of the Chernobyl facility by 2000. Although the G-7 and other multilateral institutions appear to be committed to securing Chernobylís closure, dozens of other unsafe Soviet model reactors operating throughout the region have not yet received comparable international attention.

The Foundation has not confined its interest in reactors to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Even in the most cautious and technologically sophisticated nations like Japan, serious accidents in the nuclear power industry can occur, as illustrated by the December leak of sodium coolant at the Monju breeder reactor. In the United States, whistleblower allegations about operating procedures at the Millstone nuclear plant also raise significant concern.

Prevent Hostile Use of Radiation

Potential terrorists or other militant forces do not need to construct a sophisticated nuclear weapon to harm populations, economies or natural resources. Even crude radiological bombs fashioned to disperse radioactive particles into the air, water or ground are sufficient to cause public panic, health complications and serious damage to the environment. These threats are not idleóin 1995 a radioactive package was discovered in a Moscow park, reportedly planted by Chechen rebels as a means of securing their independence from Russia.

Dispose of Nuclear Waste

Since the 1950s, politicians and technocrats have perceived the ability to harness the atomís power as a symbol of national strength and prestige. Policymakers at first extolled the value of nuclear-generated electricity that, in the words of Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, would be "too cheap to meter." After half a century of nuclear energy and weapons production, the enormous consequences of this atomic Faustian bargain are apparentómassive quantities of long-lived, highly radioactive waste, including materials containing plutonium, have accumulated at multiple sites around the U.S. and in other countries with nuclear enterprises.

Virtually all previous attempts by the federal government to find politically and technically feasible options for storage and disposition of nuclear waste have failed or encountered fierce resistance. The current program calls for a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada for underground burial of high-level nuclear waste. In the face of serious questions about the repositoryís suitability, its official opening date has slipped to 2010 at the earliest. Utilities, legitimately frustrated with the increasing expense of storing waste on-site, advocate construction of a centralized interim storage site adjacent to Yucca Mountain. This plan, however, could add political pressure to find the repository suitable regardless of contrary scientific evidence.

In 1995, the Foundation began to define a framework for its grantmaking on nuclear waste disposition. Preliminary attempts focused on bridging the gaps between the nonproliferation community, which is concerned that nuclear wastes could be reprocessed into weapons-usable form in the absence of a disposal mechanism for spent nuclear fuel, and other activists who are concerned about the failure of current national waste management plans to protect the environment and the public adequately from radioactive exposure. In the years ahead, the Foundation will seek to initiate a process that brings together the diverse parties concerned about nuclear waste, including scientists, activists, government officials, and industry representatives, to find politically and technically acceptable long-term high-level waste storage and disposition methods.

Eliminate Plutonium

In spite of the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, nuclear nonproliferation and public health continue to be threatened by international production of plutonium, a carcinogenic substance and a vital nuclear weapons ingredient. Japan is a key area of concern, given its firm interest in a plutonium energy program. Japan continues to ship its spent nuclear fuel rods to France for reprocessing and is developing its own capability to retrieve plutonium from irradiated fuel. Russia, as well, continues to operate three plutonium production reactors in the two formerly "secret cities" of Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk, and is seeking to expand its civil reprocessing program.

The U.S. is also reconsidering its moratorium on reprocessing spent fuel. Late in 1995, the Department of Energy (DOE) elected to keep open indefinitely two of its reprocessing plants at the Savannah River Site to reprocess its own spent fuel. An August 1995 memo prepared by the contractor Westinghouse suggested that DOE accept civilian spent nuclear fuel and reprocess it at Savannah River. In addition to aggravating existing nuclear waste problems, a resumption of reprocessing by the U.S. would be a drastic change in national policy, complicating efforts to limit plutonium production around the world.

The Foundation will continue to support extensive public and policymaker education on the environmental and proliferation hazards of plutonium separation. The Foundation will also continue to support projects that contribute to the cessation of plutonium reprocessing, and efforts that promote the most secure and environmentally sound ways for disposing of accrued stockpiles of separated plutonium.

Return to Earth & W. Alton Jones Foundation