Nuclear Waste

Published — March 10, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

A world awash in a nuclear explosive?

Thomas Cochran: a Natural Resources Defense Council colleague calls him “The Great Instigator.” Mark Finkenstaedt/Center for Public Integrity

Japan is leading a global move towards dangerous reactors fueled by plutonium, Thomas Cochran and other experts say


WASHINGTON — A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.

A Washington-based physicist and nuclear contrarian, Cochran helped kill a vast plutonium-based nuclear industrial complex back in the 1970s, and now he’s at it again — lecturing at symposia, standing up at official meetings, and confronting nuclear industry representatives with warnings about how commercializing plutonium will put the public at enormous risk.

Where the story ends isn’t clear. But the stakes are large.

The impetus for Cochran’s urgent new campaign — supported by a growing cadre of arms control and proliferation experts — is a seemingly puzzling decision by Japan to ready a new $22 billion plutonium production plant for operation as early as October.

The plant will provide fuel for scores of special reactors resembling those canceled in America a generation ago. Critics of the Japanese project worry that its completion in just a few months will create a crucial beachhead for longtime nuclear advocates who claim that plutonium, a sparkplug of nuclear weapons, can provide a promising civilian path to carbon-free energy.

According to its builders, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which has been undergoing testing since 2006, will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Rokkasho would be the fifth-largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.

Cochran played a key role in killing the U.S. plutonium-based nuclear reactor program, and is now targeting Japan’s. (Douglas Birch/Center for Public Integrity)

The metal is to be burned by Japanese utilities in dozens of fast breeder reactors, so named because they have the capability to both consume and produce plutonium. The ambition is to make Japan, a craggy, energy-starved island, nearly self-sufficient in generating electrical power.

But there is a hitch, Cochran and his allies say. A big one.

A lump of plutonium weighing 6.6 pounds — roughly the size of a grapefruit — is enough to make a nuclear weapon with an explosive power of 1 kiloton, or 1,000 tons, of TNT. If the Japanese plan goes forward, the island nation in theory would in a year have plutonium sufficient to build around 2,600 bombs, or enough to compose the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

Japan has renounced any desire to make nuclear weapons, but Cochran and others worry that by creating a huge plutonium stockpile — and shuttling it all over the country — the utilities there will be creating a tempting, perhaps irresistible, target for nuclear terrorists.

And though Japan is perhaps closest to finishing such a massive plutonium factory, its ambitions are far from unique.

Iran is building a research reactor near the western city of Arak capable of producing enough spent fuel to make about 20 pounds of high-grade plutonium a year — the equivalent of nearly three bombs a year. Tehran says nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents it from acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, but its plans have provoked widespread Western condemnation and are the focus of continuing international negotiations.

India recently completed a reprocessing plant capable of extracting new plutonium from about 100 tons of spent fuel yearly at Tarapur, north of Mumbai, in 2011. It joined three older plants that produced 3.8 to 4.6 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years.

Little is known about another plutonium plant under construction at Kalpakkam, south of Chennai on the Indian Ocean, but the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says it “will likely surpass” Tarapur “as India’s largest plutonium producer.”

China is considering building a new civilian plutonium plant about the size of Rokkashoat the site of two decommissioned military plutonium plants at the Jiuquan Complex in Gansu Province. Even so, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Feb. 21 that the government had “grave concerns over Japan’s storage of weapon’s grade plutonium, and lodged representations to the Japanese side recently.”

South Korea has expressed a similar interest in plutonium production, pointing explicitly to Japan as a precedent. And Japan itself has embarked on campaign — in India and elsewhere — to market its nuclear proficiency and technology.

“You’re talking about spreading this technology [and scientific expertise] all over the world in non-weapons states, and trying to safeguard it, ” says Cochran. “It’s a recipe for weapons capability.”

So far, Japan’s pursuit of its ambitious plutonium program — using nuclear fuel and technology provided partly by the United States — has mostly been greeted by public silence among government officials in allied capitals.

But there is little dispute the consequences could be far-reaching. Standing by while Japan opens the Rokkasho plutonium factory could “make it impossible” for the U.S. to resist pressure from other countries seeking bomb-fuel technology, said Thomas Moore, who served for ten years as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert on arms control.

Henry Sokolski, a former Defense Department official who now runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says that if Rokkasho opens, the United States will find it particularly hard to tell South Korea that it cannot make plutonium-based fuels — a goal that Seoul is strenuously lobbying for in Washington, as part of a bilateral nuclear trade agreement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia, could also follow Japan’s example, Sokolski said. Others worry about Turkey, Vietnam or Egypt. The list goes on and on.

“It’s very hard,” says James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, “to divide the world into states we like and states we don’t like, and say to one group it can do whatever it wants and say to members of the other group that they have to restrain their behavior.”

Already, the world has accumulated approximately 490 metric tons of plutonium, enough for about 81,600 nuclear weapons similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, in the 73 years since specks of plutonium were first synthesized at the University of California, Berkeley.

Japan, still reeling from the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima three years ago this week, is proceeding with the Rokkasho plant, its atomic energy officials say, because abandoning it would kill jobs, bankrupt utilities, and undermine plans to reopen up to 50 of the nuclear reactors forced to shutter by Fukushima. Without Rokkasho to process their waste, the reactor sites would soon be overflowing with spent fuel.

But there’s more to it than that. Japan — like the United States before 1976, England from 1959 to 1994, and France from 1967 to 2009 — has long dreamed that the radioactive wastes created by nuclear reactors could one day be routinely “recycled” or burned as fuel to make electricity instead of being buried underground.

After spending tens of billions of dollars and decades on breeder-related programs, Tom Cochran said, countries find it hard to pull the plug.

“You have an entrenched bureaucracy and an entrenched research and development community and commercial interests invested in breeder technology, and these guys don’t go away,” Cochran said. “They’re believers … and they’re not going to give up. The really true believers don’t give up.”

Cochran is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. (Mark Finkenstaedt/Center for Public Integrity)

Thomas Cochran speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., just days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986. (Walter Oates/The Washington Times)

A big-box store for terrorists?

At 72, Tom Cochran’s shock of hair has mostly gone gray, but he still has an impish face, like an older, worldlier Huckleberry Finn; he’s now a consultant to his longtime employer, the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, but shows no sign of slowing down.

Richard Garwin, another famously impolitic physicist who played a key role in the building of the hydrogen bomb, describes him as “a sterling character” in “a fairly small community of people who have worked very hard to keep fissile materials from getting loose.”

When Cochran is told something he doesn’t believe, he breaks into a sideways kind of smile. When he hears something he disagrees with, he often launches into a concise and reasoned rebuttal in a gentle Tennessee drawl, but it can sometimes turn bruising. Colleagues call him a bold, original thinker whose debating talents far outstrip his diplomatic skills.

He “absolutely has no reticence, no reticence at all about anything he says,” says noted Princeton physicist — and Cochran ally — Frank Von Hippel. Cochran once admitted to Von Hippel in a moment of candor, Von Hippel said, that “I’ve discovered that I enjoy attacking my friends as much as my enemies.”

Cochran, a Navy veteran and Vanderbilt University-trained physicist, whose father sold General Electric generating equipment to utility companies after serving on the staff of Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II, became a thorn in the side of the U.S. nuclear industry in the early 1970s. That was when a Washington environmental research group, Resources for the Future, hired him to write a book on the consequences of expanding nuclear power.

Clinch River breeder reactor site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, September 1983. (Courtesy of Thomas Cochran)

Dr. Theodore Taylor: The Los Alamos warhead designer who recognized the nuclear terror threat early on. (Robert Del Tredici/The Atomic Photographers Guild)

He got sidetracked after stopping at the government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory during his honeymoon in 1971 to learn about the Nixon Administration’s Clinch River breeder reactor project. “If you were a nuclear engineer, and particularly in the very early period, you were excited,” he said. Atomic Energy Commission engineers figured they were “designing the Ferrari of the nuclear power industry,” capable of squeezing more energy from an atom than all its forebears.

“They just had this little problem,” Cochran said. “Plutonium.”

While researching his book, Cochran read Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards, a landmark study that still sits on a shelf of his compact, glass-walled office at NRDC’s Washington headquarters. Published in 1974, one year after Cochran moved to the NRDC, the book detailed the terrorist threat posed by the production and trade in plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. It was co-written by the physicist Theodore Taylor, a former Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist who designed some of the most powerful and compact warheads in the nuclear arsenal, including one fitted to a Jeep-carried, tripod-mounted bazooka, called “the Davy Crockett.”

That same year, New Yorker writer John McPhee published a book about Taylor — The Curve of Binding Energy — in which the physicist detailed how shockingly easy it would be for terrorists to obtain the raw materials for a nuclear bomb.

So Cochran sought Taylor out, and the older physicist become something of a role model and mentor. Cochran’s own book, The Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, published that same year, laid out the technical and financial case against plutonium, and argued that the Atomic Energy Commission had underestimated the long-term costs of developing, building and operating plutonium-fueled reactors.

It marked the beginning of an eight-year, unsuccessful NRDC campaign to deny a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, which was being built by a consortium of 753 utility companies and industrial giants like Westinghouse and General Electric. Cochran and other critics won only after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island chilled the public’s interest in such projects and when federal budget officials determined the reactors’ high costs made them bad investments.

Over the course of the long struggle, Cochran frequently debated breeder advocates, among them Milton Shaw, a protégé of naval reactor guru Adm. Hyman Rickover who directed the AEC’s reactor research and development. In one meeting at Shaw’s office, Shaw pointed at a trunk and told Cochran, “See that box there? I’m going to bury you in that box.”

Shaw died in 2001, but Cochran has fought on for four decades, testifying before Congress, lecturing at universities, and appearing at debates nationwide. He often begins speeches by noting that it only takes a few pounds of plutonium to make a weapon; that the instructions for building a crude bomb are publicly available; and that the only thing standing between a determined terrorist and an improvised atomic explosive device is access to the bomb’s fuel.

Once a terror group acquires a modest amount of plutonium that could fit in an 8-ounce Coke can, Cochran said, it could easily move it across borders, despite hundreds of millions of dollars the United States has spent — or misspent — since 9/11 to build a global network of sensors and surveillance to detect it. The bomb itself, he says, could be built almost anywhere. And the most likely source of the critical ingredient, the plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, would be a large-scale production or storage facility — a facility like Rokkasho.

All but one of these big facilities are currently in states that already have nuclear weapons — states like Russia, France and the United Kingdom, which are accustomed to guarding nuclear explosive materials. Japan would be the only exception.

“Stealing a weapon is too hard,” Cochran said. “But there is no big risk in fuel assemblies, or in taking things from a bulk handling facility that can be used to make weapons.” In this view, Rokkasho is a kind of big-box store for would-be nuclear terrorists.

To be sure, some experts scoff at this scenario. “Reprocessing has been done safely and securely,” said Everett Redmond II, director of nonproliferation at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based trade group. “The French do it. The British did it. The Japanese I’m sure will do it.”

But Cochran believes massive facilities like Rokkasho are difficult to secure against malevolent insiders and armed attackers, no matter where they are located, how closely production is tracked or how many gates, guards and guns are deployed. The theft of small amounts of plutonium over months or years from any facility that processes thousands of tons of spent fuel annually is difficult to detect, he says. Stopping a stealth campaign by a high-ranking plant official to systematically siphon off materials could be impossible, he says.

Moreover, he contends, because of the sheer volume of international trade and shortcomings in sensor technology, nuclear explosives could not be readily detected in crossing international borders. So those stolen anywhere could theoretically wind up in a bomb in Detroit, Denver or New York.

Just a few pounds worth of plutonium?

There’s been a ghoulish debate between officials and independent scientists about how much plutonium is needed to fuel a clandestine bomb. But both agree it’s not much.

The U.S. bomb that destroyed half of Nagasaki in 1945 had 6.2 kilograms of plutonium in it, or 13.6 pounds. But experts say it was over-engineered — only one kilogram fissioned, they concluded later.

The International Atomic Energy Agency nonetheless decided years ago that eight kilograms of plutonium, or 17.6 pounds, are needed to make a bomb and so that’s the quantity its monitoring is geared to stop from getting loose.

Cochran and his NRDC colleague Christopher Paine challenged the IAEA standard in 1995 with a study concluding that only 3 kilograms — 6.6 pounds — would be needed to fashion a “very respectable” bomb with the explosive power of a kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT. But no matter who is right, Rokkasho’s annual plutonium production would be enough for 1,000 weapons or more.

To build an efficient plutonium bomb, the plutonium would have to be shaped into a sphere so it could be compressed with conventional explosives and rapidly reach critical mass, Cochran said. If the plutonium is crammed together too slowly, it becomes, according to an old weapons-designer joke, “fizzle” material instead of fissile material. It detonates prematurely, and only a tiny fraction is fissioned.

But a skilled, well-financed team could take a thermos-full, Cochran says, shape it into a hollow sphere about the size of a baseball or softball, pack it inside a sphere of explosives in a way that focuses the blast inward and turn it into a weapon that could produce a nuclear blast of one or two kilotons, equal to 1,000 or 2,000 tons of TNT.

“The technology needed to make a plutonium bomb is very old,” Cochran says. “This is not rocket science. So it’s within the capability of a team of people who had some sophistication.”

He paused. “This is why people worry about plutonium.”

A one-kiloton device exploded at ground level in a heavily populated area would be comparable in its effects to the Nagasaki bomb that exploded more than 1,500 feet in the sky, causing about 75,000 deaths and a similar number of injuries. A 2003 study by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pegged the direct cost of damage from a 10-kiloton bomb at $1 trillion, along with incalculable political, economic, and social chaos.

The danger that plutonium harvested from the spent fuel of civilian reactors could be used to build nuclear weapons was dramatized in 1974. India used a reactor built by Canada under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program to produce plutonium that fueled the first nuclear explosive detonated by a country other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The bomb was built from plutonium produced by India’s CIRUS — for “Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S.” — at the Trombay nuclear complex north of the city now called Mumbai. CIRUS is a type of reactor that uses heavy water as a moderator and can run on natural rather than enriched uranium. The research reactor being built by Iran at Arak is also a heavy-water design.

Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reacted by trying to discourage the development of civilian plutonium programs at home and abroad. Carter tried to stop Japan’s by withholding permission to use U.S.-supplied materials and technology for the effort. But Japan insisted on proceeding, and the White House settled for an agreement under which Japan would seek permission for each new batch it made.

Then, in 1982, President Reagan issued a secret National Security Decision Directive giving Japan “advance consent” to produce plutonium and trade it with European allies, as long as it met certain guidelines. And in 1987, Reagan went further, publicly granting Japan blanket approval essentially to make all the plutonium it wished, as part of a broader nuclear trade agreement. The groundwork for Rokkasho had thus been laid.

The Coke can experiment

In the abstract, there’s plenty of alarm in official circles. “Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city — be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris — could kill hundreds of thousands of people,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations Security Council in September 2009. “And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”

But Cochran has long criticized the effectiveness of one of Washington’s most costly and elaborate strategies to prevent such a catastrophe — a global effort to detect and capture illicit fissile materials at border crossings and major world ports.

Since 2003 the United States has spent more than $850 million on equipment and training for customs officials at 45 foreign ports so they can scan shipping containers to detect nuclear materials. It’s a daunting assignment. About 432 million shipping containers crisscrossed the oceans in 2009 alone. U.S. ports accept 15 million containers every year.

The initial goal of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration under the so-called Megaports program was to install equipment at more than 100 foreign ports by 2018 and train local officials to scan half of global traffic. But many countries with large stocks of nuclear explosive materials did not participate in the program, according to the NNSA, including France, India, Russia and Japan.

Some countries that installed the U.S. equipment — like Panama — later reported using it on a tiny fraction of their cargo. As of 2012, China had installed just a single monitor at one port, out of 12 Chinese ports given high priority rankings by Washington, according to a report that year by the Government Accountability Office.

The NNSA has never released data on what nuclear materials its foreign partners reported seizing, but intelligence officials have said the equipment has only flagged tons of mildly radioactive scrap metal, not the makings of potential bombs.

“The technologies used … may not be able to detect nuclear or other radiological material that has been shielded or masked, and terrorists could also bypass” it, the GAO report stated. It added that the Energy Department, which inherited some of the scanners as cast-offs from the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t adequately test them; instead, it changed the name of the hardware to “avoid the negative connotations associated with” its prior service.

At a Washington symposium last year meant to showcase some new technologies for portal monitoring, Cochran stood in the audience, cautioned the sponsor that they might want to turn off their video recorders, and then firmly tore apart the premise that such detection devices could play a useful role in protecting the country from nuclear terror.

“I wouldn’t put another penny” in such technologies, Cochran said, because “it won’t reduce the risk.” The billions already spent could better have been used for “intelligence, police work, locking up materials at the source,” or eliminating their production altogether. Millions of illegal immigrants “didn’t go through ports,” he said. And screening all rail cars and container ships would be impossibly costly.

Cochran says that border detection is a particularly futile exercise for enriched uranium. Radiation detectors would have to be placed on top of a container, he says, to register the kind of radiation given off by uranium. Plutonium is more difficult to shield, but it could still be done — perhaps by packing the plutonium in a light material, like a plastic containing many hydrogen atoms to absorb the neutrons that would set off a detector.

“The only way you can solve this problem is by securing the plutonium at the source,” or by not producing it in the first place, he said. “You can’t secure the border.”

Battered by persistently critical audits and by criticisms like Cochran’s, the Energy Department has slowly been shifting ground. In budget documents last year, DOE suspended installation of new scanning equipment at large container seaports pending a review on the cost and effectiveness of the program. The administration’s budget called for eliminating the $133 million program in fiscal 2014. Congress in January also capped spending on the Megaports program, providing enough funds to expand it only modestly.

While Cochran couches many of his arguments in the language of mathematics and physics, he has also sought to drive home his points with theatrics.

Cochran’s favorite prop: A 15-pound cylinder of depleted uranium he bought — perfectly legally — for $100 from a mail order lab supply outfit. (ABC News)

At the height of the 1970s battle over the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, he hit on an idea for demonstrating how easy it would be to smuggle the fuel needed for an atomic bomb past international borders.

So for $100, he purchased by mail from a Massachusetts lab supply company a 6.8 kilogram — 15 pound — cylinder of dense, heavy, depleted uranium, a mildly radioactive waste material from reactors that cannot be used to make a bomb. Fifteen pounds was the largest order allowed without a government license; the same quantity can still be purchased readily today. The cylinder had the same weight and a similar bulk as the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.

Then, when he flew to lectures or meetings, Cochran wrapped the uranium in lead, stuck it in a length of yellow-painted pipe with a handle welded to it and carried it through airport security. After being stopped at an x-ray machine in one airport, he told the operator “it’s uranium, don’t worry about it. It’s okay.” She let him through and he carried it onto the plane.

On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.

During a 1995 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in the Capitol building about how easy it would be to smuggle plutonium out of Russia, Cochran produced his Coke can and waved a hand-held radiation detector over it to prove it was radioactive.

Six years later, after the 9/11 attacks, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross asked Cochran to borrow his Coke can, and wound up smuggling it from Vienna back to the United States, first by boarding a train through the Balkans and then by container ship out of Istanbul. The ship docked at a Staten Island facility where Customs officials said they had installed detectors capable of spotting radioactive materials.

“This is what they’re looking for or should be looking for and this is what they absolutely have to stop,” Cochran said on camera. But Customs inspectors never opened the ornamental Turkish chest the can was stored in, and it was later carried by truck to a warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, across from Manhattan.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told ABC that inspectors determined “that container did not pose a threat for having, let’s say, some sort of nuclear weapons grade material in it or a nuclear device.”

But Cochran said Customs could not have detected anything without opening the crate, and obviously missed it. “You can reliably detect most anything with sufficient money or time to do it, but you don’t have sufficient money or time to do it at a border,” he says. “So basically you can’t reliably detect it.”

After a second smuggling episode embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the department dispatched agents to the ABC News offices in Los Angeles, the home of a cameraman, and Cochran’s home in Alexandria, Va., where they blocked him from leaving to shop for groceries.

“Has any law been broken?” Cochran asked. An agent said she wanted to ask him some questions. Cochran said he would, but only in his office during the work week, and only with an NRDC lawyer present. The meeting never occurred and no charges were ever filed. But Homeland Security officials seized the depleted uranium.

Asked about the episode several months ago, Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, said she could not find any information about the investigation or the fate of the sample.

So ended the tale of the nuclear Coke can — at least for now. Cochran isn’t making any promises about the future. “I think it’s a more dangerous time [than] when Ted Taylor was making his case, and I began to make that case,” Cochran says. “It was difficult to point to active terrorist cells that were out there, poised to get this kind of material. And now we know they’re out there.”

Annoying? Perhaps. Persistent? For sure. But the way Cochran sees it, sometimes that’s what it takes.

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