The Senate tomorrow is expected to vote on whether to continue a nuclear-energy research program that even the secretary of energy doesn’t like. For both cost-saving and security reasons, the $140 million breeder reactor program should go the way of all pork — a casualty of a nation with more desires than the cash to pay for them.
Advanced liquid metal reactors, as they are known, produce electricity by using plutonium for fuel. But burning plutonium, according to the American Nuclear Energy Council, generates highly radioactive fission products and toxic heavy metals. Research on advanced liquid metal reactors has cost the nation $1.4 billion since 1986, yet it is unclear whether there is even a market for the product. It was no surprise that Congress killed a similar project, called the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, in Tennessee in the early 1980s.
Sen. Bill Cohen last week made the very sensible suggestion to the Pentagon that it quit wasting the taxpayers’ money on projects that no one needs and very few want. He used as an apt example a multi-million-dollar pier that served no purpose. He could add the breeder program to his list. Last time, he was in the majority of senators who supported continued funding for this program after the House had rejected it. Sen. George Mitchell opposed it. This time, Sen. Cohen ought to put his vote on the side of cost-savings and reject the project.
Canceling the breeder program is more than just a money-saver. The recent dispute between the United States and North Korea was over the plutonium used for such reactors, placing the United States in the peculiar position of arguing against a program abroad that it funds at home. Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary recently pointed out that, “We cannot credibly urge that others not use technologies for separating and using plutonium if we are pursuing those same technologies ourselves. Such actions could provide an excuse for rogue nations to oppose international efforts to end their plutonium-separation efforts.”
Politically and fiscally, rejecting the breeder reactor is the prudent course. From the perspective of world safety, the United States would have been better off if the program had been killed long ago.