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The Nuclear Terrorist
His Financial Backer and Political Patrons in the U.S and Abroad
By Robert Gleason
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 Robert Gleason
All rights reserved.
OVER 100,000 NUCLEAR SHIPMENTS — A CHERNOBYL ON WHEELS1
Too much nuclear bomb-fuel has been too available for too long, and, as we have seen, once sophisticated terrorists acquire it, fabricating a small Hiroshima- or a Nagasaki-style nuclear device is not overwhelmingly difficult. If they have thirty-five pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a small group of unskilled people with low-tech equipment can build a Hiroshima-style terrorist nuke.
Unfortunately, rather than confronting nuclear proliferators, aspiring nuclear terrorists, and most importantly their paymasters, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama ... enabled them.
Obama's nuclear proliferation policies reflected Bush's to a disconcerting degree. In fact, as we shall also demonstrate later, at times he pursued the Bush policies with greater tenacity than Bush did — a tenacity that his supporters did not anticipate.
"Until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe ... I don't think that's the best option," Obama had said in one campaign speech. "I am not a nuclear energy proponent," he claimed another time.
Consequently, his almost monomaniacal support of nuclear power left many of his supporters dumbfounded.
We will discuss Obama's apparent mind-change, but for the moment, let us examine his seeming disregard for the nuclear proliferator's threat — and by extension that of the nuclear terrorist. President Obama never treated nuclear proliferation as a serious problem. Instead of reining in nuclear proliferators, at home and abroad, he sought to retail nuclear power reactors — every proliferator's holy grail — by offering them to some of the most unreliable nations in the developing world, including Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and even Iraq.
Before Egypt erupted in flames in 2011, it announced that it would issue a tender for building four nuclear power plants. Its minister of electricity, Hassan Younes, told Reuters that the United States expressed interest in building nuclear power reactors for them, too. What the Egyptian rebels, rioters, and administration partisans would have done with three or four completed nuclear reactors during their revolution is painful to contemplate.
Throughout his political career, Obama never acknowledged nuclear power proliferation's dark side — it is the perfect cover for developing nuclear weapons and once the nuclear reactors are built nothing short of a military invasion can definitively destroy that nation's nuclear weapons program. Iran and North Korea are cases in point. But instead of fighting nuclear proliferation, Obama became that industry's most effective advocate since Dwight David Eisenhower, who created the global nuclear proliferation industry with his "Atoms for Peace" speech — something we will discuss in detail later.
Obama also seemed indifferent to the threat nuclear waste posed to the nation.
Given the almost incomprehensible virulence of spent fuel, one would think that Washington would have outlawed its creation and shut down the industry's current reactors as soon as their licenses expired.
Instead, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan convinced Congress to begin building a central repository for that industry's soaring edifice of radioactive refuse — which, during the Obama administration, weighed over seventy-five tons. The industry adds to that quantity 2.2 tons annually and were those endlessly lethal rods all packed together like sardines, they would take up 160,000 cubic feet. Of course, were they thus crammed together, they would also chain-react.
Reagan's permanent storage site for this nuclear nightmare was to be Yucca Mountain, less than a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas. Washington eventually spent over $11 billion on the Yucca storage site — a deep stainless-steel-lined mine shaft bored into the mountain, and the Bush administration estimated that were the United States to finish it, the total cost would run $90 billion. To pressure the Department of Energy (DOE) into finishing the facility on time, Congress ordered the completion of the Yucca Mountain site by 1998; failure do so required $1 billion a year in fines and penalties, payable to the nuclear industry. Since 1998, U.S. taxpayers have ponied up $1 billion a year in tribute to the nuclear power industry.
Why did U.S. citizens have to pay such extortionate late fees to the nuclear power companies? Why didn't the nuclear utilities build their own geologic repositories and not the government? Why did taxpayers and utility ratepayers have to finance and underwrite virtually 100 percent of nuclear power's costs, all the while bearing its eternal fiscal and physical liabilities?
Obama offered no answer to these questions.
It was as if the nuclear power's hawks were corporate socialists, who believed that U.S. taxpayers worked for the industry.
Even so, a storage site had to be found. Nuclear physicists agreed almost unanimously that the most secure resting place for America's waste would be a geologic repository deep inside of a mountain. The solution wasn't perfect by any means. Over so many hundreds of millennia, the storage sites would be subject to flooding, earthquakes, even sabotage; if nothing else, simple plain deterioration and leakage. Still "a deep geologic repository" was the only answer scientists could come up with, which was why in 1987, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress agreed on such a storage site: the tunnels of Yucca Mountain.
Sequestering so many tons of frighteningly flammable waste necessitated a mountainous amount of storage space. The Department of Energy would have had to bore forty miles worth of tunnels, each of which would have to be at least twenty-five feet in diameter, after which the country would have to spend several decades hauling waste into that stony labyrinth. Even before the DOE filled it up, however, it would have to find and open up another forty miles worth of twenty-five-foot-in-diameter tunnels in which to stow what its nuclear plants had again accumulated, after which the DOE would have to honeycomb another mountain with another endless maze of nuclear mine shafts.
On and on, ad eternam, ad infinitum.
Or until the entire nuclear industry disappeared into one vast, apocalyptic meltdown or the industry ran out of mountains to despoil.
Obviously, most Americans feared — even hated — the Yucca Mountain repository ... for good reason. Not only was the site itself a seismic hazard, transporting the spent fuel to Yucca Mountain would be a potential "Chernobyl on wheels." The caravans of boxcars — one-third of which would pass through metropolitan Chicago — would be an open invitation to terrorists.
So when Obama took office, he came up with a plan that would allow the nuclear power industry to expand and at the same time alleviate voters' fears of Yucca Mountain. He wouldn't move the seventy-five tons of toxic waste. He'd leave it right where it was — in power plant cooling pools, on the plant grounds — guarded by rent-a-cops. It would stay there until someone figured out what to do with it. In other words, he would kick the can down the road.
Obama's rationale for this storage system was specious in the extreme. America's toxic fuel pools at the reactor sites held 400 percent more nuclear waste than they were built to store. It was as if Obama was trying to cram four hundred pounds of waste into a hundred-pound bag.
Transporting the spent fuel would be a forbiddingly difficult task. When the plan was still on the drawing board, experts estimated the nuclear energy would need 100,000 individual shipments to load the waste into Yucca Mountain and that the operation would take decades. The shipping routes would take it throughout forty-three states. Wherever that central storage site was located, the country's nuclear refuse would have to travel though most of the United States. The storage sites were just too spread out.
Would those transport vehicles be safe from terrorist attacks? Security at U.S. power plants and weapons labs had proven to be abysmal. Why would transport security on over 100,000 shipments be any better? At any one of the myriad stopping points, a terrorist could slip a bomb into one or more of the nuclear transport vehicles.
And as we have said, one-third of those toxic waste-trains would pass through Chicago.
As we discussed, in the 1980s the Reagan administration passed a law guaranteeing the nuclear power industry the creation of a centralized, permanent nuclear waste repository. The law stated that if the federal government failed to build the repository by 1998, the U.S. taxpayers would owe the nuclear power companies fines and penalties for that failure. The U.S. taxpayers have consequently shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars a year, have paid $2 billion in all to these nuclear companies, and unfortunately the penalties are going up. Nor does transporting nuclear power's intensely radioactive fuel and its toxic waste to a permanent, centralized site — an interim site is against the law — appear even remotely feasible. The waste and the fuel first have to be packed into protective casks, which are massive. Typically constructed of steel and surrounded by concrete, the containers stand over two stories high, are eleven feet in diameter, weigh 180 tons, and can become warm to the touch. Those casks aren't meant for shipping though. In order to transport these silo-size cylinders, they have to be lighter. The maximal tonnage for truck casks is 26 tons, and for rail car casks 125 tons, so the concrete must be removed in order to ship them. For transport purposes, the casks also have to be smaller. The overall diameter for truck casks must be reduced to 6 feet and their length is 20 feet. The overall diameter for rail casks must be 8 feet, their length 25 feet. These are still big, very heavy objects, however, and their transportation requires powerful, highly specialized equipment, including cask-lifting cranes and in many cases rail lines, most of which the U.S. has not built and installed in sufficient quantities at these sites. The country also lacks the custom-built trucks and rail cars into which the casks would have to safely fit during the course of the casks' journeys — over 100,000-plus cumulative shipments in all. These containers are, for now, literally too hot and heavy to handle and ship safely.
Moreover, at a number of the storage sites the reactors have been shut down. The unused reactor fuel has to be loaded into casks and stored on site. However, since these installations are no longer generating power and profit, the companies have cut back on security. At these locations taxpayers have to pick up the security tabs. The Department of Energy is, as of the writing of this book, sitting on 2,800 tons of such nuclear fuel — which is of course different from nuclear waste — stored at nine different sites. Over all, the DOE is storing casks filled with nuclear waste and rejected reactor fuel at 120 sites.CHAPTER 2
SAFE, EASY-TO-HANDLE NUCLEAR ... PLUTONIUM
In 2009, Barack Obama suspended George W. Bush's attempts to resurrect the reprocessing of nuclear waste. Some nuclear power advocates criticized Obama for that action, arguing that reprocessing would solve the waste-storage problem. Most nations, however, do not reprocess spent-fuel rods. The United States stopped doing so in 1976 after India demonstrated that it could fuel and detonate nuclear weapons by using reprocessed nuclear power plant waste. At that point President Gerald Ford suspended plutonium waste reprocessing in the United States, and the next year President Jimmy Carter banned it outright, encouraging other nations to do the same. Ronald Reagan lifted the ban after taking office, but he also stopped the building of civilian reactor reprocessors. The operation was too expensive, and the nuclear industry could not afford them. In fact, nuclear power's skyrocketing construction, financing, spent-fuel storage, and insurance costs made the development of nuclear power plants and nuclear reprocessors economically infeasible.
Nonetheless, reprocessing's advocates have always argued that reprocessing waste was desirable because it reduced it to a relatively safe powder. Still, most of the nuclear nations — twenty-one out of thirty-one — refused to go that route. The ten nations, which continued to reprocess, argued for the most part that their nuclear industries were established well before the ban and were already dependent on reprocessing.
One reason the other twenty-one nations did not reprocess waste was its exorbitant cost. Since nuclear power was already far more expensive than, for example, gas turbine-generated power, the additional cost of reprocessing spent fuel cut heavily into nuclear power's bottom line. A study from The Keystone Center, composed in part by nuclear power executives, stated: "Reprocessing as currently practiced is several times more expensive than a once-through fuel cycle system," and the study concluded that "reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future."
Another reason why most nations don't reprocess is that it doesn't solve the waste disposal problem. Reprocessing only neutralizes a small amount of the toxic waste. Most of the waste remains massively lethal. It must ultimately be sequestered — eventually in a geologic repository, a solution that has so far proven a political impossibility worldwide.
Bush's championing of nuclear reprocessing made no sense — except to other nuclear power enthusiasts. They advocated reprocessing, because its corporate welfare potential was limitless: Reprocessing would require prodigious government subsidies, if it were ever to be viable. It also created the illusion that the bulk of nuclear waste could effectively be detoxified, and of course it can't.
Even worse, reprocessing was exactly how governments separated out plutonium and uranium, and then converted it to bomb-fuel. In fact, almost four hundred tons of plutonium — enough for more than forty thousand bombs — had already been extracted from waste by the world's nuclear reprocessors. Because the United States had stopped reprocessing, it hadn't been burdened with the hard and hazardous task of securing hundreds of tons of additional plutonium, to say nothing of the extortionate expense. Since the reprocessed fuel was relatively safe to handle, it was also easier to steal than current plutonium waste, which is the most toxic substance on earth. Moreover, after smugglers stole the reprocessed plutonium and uranium, tracking the thefts would be next to impossible.
The United States ran a reprocessing facility from 1966 to 1972 in West Valley, New York, and disposal of the unreprocessed waste was a nightmare. Workers were exposed to shocking levels of radiation, and after thirty years of waste disposal and decontamination, the ultimate cleanup was estimated to cost over $5 billion and would take a total of forty years. Furthermore, the cost of building the facility was not included in those figures. In effect, the Department of Energy had turned the site into a massive money pit and toxic waste dump.
Moreover, reprocessing at the installation was prohibitively complex. While the site had the capacity to reprocess 330 tons of spent nuclear waste per year, in reality, the facility could only handle less than one-third of that amount — a total of 640 tons of waste after six years.
Were the United States to reprocess all of its nuclear waste, the global quantity of separated plutonium and uranium would have soared to over eight hundred metric tons and the U.S. would still not know what to do with the vast bulk of lethal waste which reprocessing would not have neutralized.CHAPTER 3
A FINANCIAL APOCALYPSE
When Obama took office, the global financial markets still viewed nuclear power unfavorably. He and the world faced ballooning deficits and a critically urgent need to cut costs. Nonetheless, Obama upped the financial ante on Bush's 2005 Energy Policy Act. In fact, Obama matched Bush's nuclear power allocations, asking Congress to budget over $18 billion for nuclear power plant construction. He eventually asked for a total of $54 billion.
Citibank had analyzed the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power construction after Obama took office. Private nuclear power developers, its report said, faced critical risks in five areas — planning, construction, power price, operations, and decommissioning. The report concluded that nuclear power was financially untenable in all five areas for private firms.
In its paper, "New Nuclear — The Economics Say No," Citibank accused nuclear power's proponents of blinding themselves to the magnitude of nuclear power's liabilities. Focusing solely on the private investors' "planning risk," the nuclear power lobby ignored nuclear power's other unsustainable costs, the Citibank report said, which the nuclear utilities would pass on to taxpayers.
Excerpted from The Nuclear Terrorist by Robert Gleason. Copyright © 2014 Robert Gleason. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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