Washington, D.C. —A February 15 Department of Energy (DOE) report to Congress on the program to dispose of weapons plutonium fails to resolve hard questions facing the plutonium disposition proposal and has revealed substantial changes to the program.
DOE now proposes utilizing two additional nuclear reactors to use the plutonium fuel (mixed uranium-plutonium oxide, MOX) for plutonium disposition, a decision certain to create controversy in communities near reactors under consideration for this dangerous mission, according to the Nuclear Control institute (NCI).
According to Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI’s Scientific Director, “It is impossible for DOE to safely achieve its accelerated plutonium disposition rate with only two more reactors; DOE will need at least three more reactors for its redefined program. DOE must explain in an amended Environmental Impact Statement how the accelerated rate can be achieved and which reactors it will be using. Unfortunately, the plutonium disposition plan which DOE has presented to Congress is highly speculative and unlikely to succeed without significant additional costs and delays to the program.” Given the “substantial changes” to the plutonium disposition program, DOE is required under its National Environmental Policy Act regulations to prepare a “Supplemental EIS.”
NCI, which has obtained the report and is releasing it publicly, renewed its call for an amended Environmental Impact Statement on the entire plutonium disposition program, given the substantial changes in the program and the unresolved questions which surround it. “Rather than charting a clear path forward with the plutonium disposition program, this DOE report only amplifies the problems facing plutonium disposition,” said Dr. Lyman. “Immobilization of plutonium in nuclear waste, which DOE confirms is cheaper than MOX, is safer from an environmental and non-proliferation perspective and must be restored as a disposition option.”
The DOE document, entitled Report to Congress: Disposition of Surplus Defense Plutonium at Savannah River Site, was due to Congress on February 1 as required in the Fiscal Year 2002 Defense Authorization Act but was apparently delivered to the Armed Services Committees early last week. The law required that DOE review disposition options for plutonium to be taken to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and present costs of implementation of the various options and a firm schedule for construction of necessary facilities for the preferred MOX option.
In the report, DOE affirms its elimination of the cheaper “immobilization” option at Russian insistence and its preference to dispose of plutonium as nuclear fuel. DOE states that “successful implementation” of the program will require two additional nuclear reactors to dispose of 3.5 metric tons (MT) of plutonium a year, but fails to identify those reactors or how they will be selected. Previously, DOE designated four reactors owned by Duke Power to use plutonium fuel, disposing of 2 MT per year. In April 2000, Virginia Power pulled its 2 North Anna reactors out of the MOX program after a “business decision” not to proceed. NCI believes that identification of new reactors could prove controversial in communities located near the reactors. According to an NCI study, a severe accident at a reactor using MOX fuel could result in an additional 25% cancer deaths as compared to a severe accident using conventional uranium fuel.
The report also fails to identify where plutonium is currently stored throughout the DOE complex and which plutonium is bound for the Savannah River Site. On January 23, DOE announced that 6.4 MT which had been scheduled to be “immobilized” at SRS with high-level nuclear waste is being shifted to the MOX program. On February 13, DCS admitted that a nuclear waste solidification facility would be needed at SRS to handle MOX waste, but this report fails to address the cost of that facility and when environmental documents will be prepared on its construction and operation.
DOE also announced on January 23 that 2 MT of plutonium would be disposed of directly as waste, but the February 15 report does not clarify where the material will come from or where it will be disposed. In a letter to DOE on February 5, Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico opposed taking this material to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) disposal facility located in his state.
Shipments of plutonium from Rocky Flats to SRS are expected in the near future, but Governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina may not allow this plutonium to enter his state because DOE has failed to clarify the disposition pathways for this dangerous material. Without a firm disposition plan, the Rocky Flats plutonium could end up in long-term storage at SRS in a facility (the old K-Reactor) not designed for safe, secure long-term storage. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), in a November 21, 2001 letter to DOE, expressed concern about plutonium storage in the K-Reactor, stating that the facility “is an aged facility and was never intended to provide more than interim storage.”
In its report to Capitol Hill, DOE also does not address the uncertainty of any schedule for disposition in Russia and the difficulty that this presents for achieving a firm U.S. disposition schedule. The basis for the Russian MOX program remains export from Germany to Russia of a closed MOX facility owned by Siemens and located at Hanau, Germany, but Siemens stated last week that the plant would be dismantled, and thus not be available for transfer to Russia. Dismantlement of this plant in the coming weeks will cause the planning basis for the Russian program to collapse, thus severely impacting the U.S. program.
electronic copy of the February15 report entitled Report to Congress:
Disposition of Surplus Defense Plutonium at Savannah River Site is
available on request, as is NCI’s February 8 letter to DOE on the need for
a Supplemental EIS.