Congressman questions plutonium plan

-A A +A

Disposition > Markey calls it a ‘pluperfect disaster’

Last week, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to the Department of Energy questioning the value of the Department’s plan to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into Mixed-Oxide Fuel that could be used in nuclear power plants.

Markey said the project is over budget, raises non-proliferation concerns, lacks even a single customer for the MOX fuel, and is far more expensive than disposing of the material as waste.

“The government’s plutonium plan is a pluperfect disaster,” Markey said. “It is over budget, riddled with delays and problems, and is producing a product that no one wants.  And all to produce $2 billion worth of reactor fuel at a cost of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and damage to our global non-proliferation efforts.”

Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) also weighed in on the issue.

“Disposition of weapons-grade plutonium is an important and complex issue. It is important because this material is a key ingredient for making a nuclear weapon and needs to be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. It is complex because the nature of plutonium makes it difficult and expensive to convert to a safer form. Moreover, how the United States proceeds with disposition of this material will affect how other countries handle their own excess plutonium.

“In 2000, the United States and Russia signed a Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which set the two countries down a common path in plutonium disposition. Congress, with its authorization and appropriations responsibility, will continue play an important role in how the U.S. proceeds. With expert advice from scientific and environmental communities, there will be a vigorous debate about the best way to proceed; and my colleague’s statement that you cite is a part of that debate. I support all sides being brought to the table so that the best path forward for the nation will prevail,” he said.

Last year, the National Nuclear Security Administration released the Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for public review and comment.

And public comments were due in October.

NNSA Los Alamos Site Office spokesperson Toni Chiri said the final EIS will be released in April. And a Record of Decision is expected to be issued in June.

The Draft Supplemental EIS analyzes the potential environmental impacts of alternatives for the disposition of 7.1 metric tons of additional weapons-usable plutonium from pits that were declared surplus to national defense needs in 2007 but were not included in DOE’s prior decisions as well as 6 MT of surplus weapons-usable non-pit plutonium.

The SPD Supplemental EIS analyzes four alternative disposition pathways: disposition of plutonium using the can-in-canister vitrification approach, involving small cans of material, which would be placed in a rack inside a Defense Waste Processing Facility canister and surrounded with vitrified high-level radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site; disposition of non-pit plutonium via H-Canyon and DWPF at SRS; disposal of non-pit plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico; and fabrication of pit and some non-pit plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for use in domestic commercial nuclear power reactors.

The SPD Supplemental EIS also includes options for providing a pit disassembly and conversion capability including a stand-alone facility at SRS or installing capability in existing facilities at one or more of the following locations: the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) at Los Alamos National Laboratory, H Canyon/HB-Line at SRS, K-Area at SRS and the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at SRS. 

PF-4 originally did the research and the thought was the work would eventually be done at SRS. The lab currently uses PF-4 as a place to build bomb parts.

A statement, released last year, said that DOE is considering using PF-4 to do the pit disassembly and conversion capability.

The MOX Fuel Alternative is DOE’s preferred alternative for surplus plutonium disposition.  DOE’s preferred option for pit disassembly and the conversion of surplus plutonium metal to supply feed for the MFFF, is to use some combination of facilities like PF-4 at LANL, K-Area at SRS, H‑Canyon/HB-Line at SRS and MFFF at SRS, rather than to construct a new stand-alone facility. 

In 1997 and again in 2002, Markey raised concerns with the Secretary of Energy regarding this program and he included complete cancelation of the plan in H.R. 3975, the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act, which was introduced in 2012.

In his letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Markey asked for responses to 26 questions including:
• How much will it cost to complete the MOX facility, begin operations, process all surplus plutonium, and finally shut down the program; and what is the timeline for these operations?
• Which nuclear power plants will use MOX fuel, how will DOE secure their agreement, and at what cost?
• What will be the value of the MOX fuel that is produced?
• What would be the cost and timeline to dispose of surplus plutonium as waste?