In 16th century Japan, the national aristocracy, a coterie of priests and samurai warriors, decided that guns, which had been introduced a century earlier, were a threat to the established order and should not proliferate.Instead the weapon of choice would be the samurai sword, a somewhat outmoded instrument that nevertheless had an archaic panache free of the leveling implications of gunpowder. As Noel Perrin chronicled in Giving up the Gun, the priests succeeded in erasing all record of guns from artwork and historical documents so that the Samurai ruled in splendid isolation - until Admiral Perry showed up in 1853 with a few gunboats and the medieval era was over.
Today parts of America seem to want to take a similar approach to nuclear power. The Obama Administration, in conjunction with a druid-like caste of environmentalists urging everyone to “go green,” has decided to exile nuclear power to from the public square. It’s not that the technology will be weighed against the medieval alternative of trying to run an industrial nation on windmills. Instead, we will simply pretend that nuclear doesn’t exist, either here or abroad.
Nowhere was this more on display than in March when Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy and a Nobel Prize Winner no less, announced the 20-year effort to open a repository at Yucca Mountain would be abandoned. What was revealing was not the Yucca decision - that was almost a foregone conclusion - but the simultaneous announcement that neither will we pursue nuclear reprocessing in the manner of the French and Japanese. The reason, Secretary Chu said, is because reprocessing “might lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
It is hard to express the fatuousness of this head-in-the-sand, know-nothing, make-the-world-disappear approach. To the proverbial visitor form Mars in 2009, it is almost comic that the United States thinks that by abjuring nuclear reprocessing in this country we are somehow saving the world from nuclear weapons. Look around you. Is North Korea plotting to steal plutonium from American nuclear reactors in order to build a bomb? Is Iran purloining enriched uranium from American facilities? Did Dr. A.G. Kahn of Pakistan run an international swat team plotting to raid French reprocessing plants?
Wake up America! We no longer control this technology. The world has moved past us. The French are now twenty years ahead in constructing a nuclear fuel cycle. The British, Canadians and Japanese have all continued reprocessing. The Russians are selling nuclear technology to South America. Even the Chinese obtained all the specs to their new Westinghouse reactors so they can reverse-engineer it and will probably be marketing their own reactors soon. A boatload of mixed oxide fuel just sailed from France to Japan, where it will be burned in a new MOX reactor. No pirates attacked.
Of course environmentalists and anti-nuclear crusaders are cheering Chu’s decision. “What do you do with the waste?” has long been their trump card. Many states such as California passing laws saying no more reactors can be built until the waste problem is solved. For now, the administration’s decision will assure we maintain our splendid isolation.
Like 19th century Japan, however, we won’t be able to ignore the world forever. Areva, the French nuclear giant, has signed contracts to revive the Barnwell reprocessing facility. Areva also is taking enriched uranium from the former Soviet weapons program, “blending it down” to reactor level and selling it to us. Half our nuclear fuel now comes from a former Soviet weapon - a swords-into-plowshares triumph that has somehow eluded public recognition.
The truly sad thing is to see America falling behind on a technology we once pioneered. The discovery of nuclear energy was the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century and will almost certainly come to dominate 21st century energy generation. We are now being left behind.