Scientist gives his two cents on plutonium plan

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DOE: Agency mulls what to do with tons of excess material

By John Severance

As in most public hearings regarding anything that has to do with the Department of Energy, activists were in attendance Tuesday to put in their two cents worth.

That was the case at the Holiday Inn Express as they came out to let their feelings be known about the Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Interestingly enough, however, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist also stood up to give his opinion.

Those occasions are rare.

But David Clark was ready.

“I’ve devoted my career to developing knowledge and expertise on the science and technology of plutonium,” Clark said. “I’ve come tonight as a citizen and a scientific expert on matters related to plutonium. As a leader in plutonium science, I remind everyone that there is well over 2,000 metric tons of plutonium throughout the world in various forms. 

“Regardless of your views on how this situation came to be, it is clear that these large inventories must be prudently managed for many centuries and we must secure it against theft and diversion. To succeed, we will have to stabilize, store, and/or destroy excess plutonium. 

“I submit that converting seven metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapon pits into plutonium oxide is an essential first step in the disposition plan.”

The Draft Supplemental EIS analyzes the potential environmental impacts of alternatives for the disposition of 7.1 metric tons (MT) of additional weapons-grade 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 (SRS); disposition of non-pit plutonium via H-Canyon and DWPF at SRS; disposal of non-pit plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico; and fabrication of pit and some non-pit plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) 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 that capability in existing facilities at one or more of the following locations: the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) at LANL, H Canyon/HB-Line at SRS, K-Area at SRS and the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at SRS. 

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 at 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. This would likely require the installation of additional equipment and other modifications to some of these facilities. DOE’s preferred alternative for disposition of surplus plutonium that is not suitable for MOX fuel fabrication is disposal at WIPP in New Mexico.

This was Clark’s take on what should happen.

“The NNSA is looking for existing facilities that can do this work, and all of the facilities described are capable of performing portions of this mission. There were comments tonight about the science of plutonium being overblown. Plutonium science at Los Alamos is not overblown, and plutonium disposition is all about the science. In fact, Los Alamos scientists developed and demonstrated the seminal technology concepts for pit disassembly and conversion that will be used in any facility under consideration.

“This is not a new activity for Los Alamos, as we are currently disassembling pits and converting them to oxide with this science and technology today. Los Alamos already has a workforce with the appropriate depth and skill to support this effort, and I therefore support bringing a portion of the important plutonium disposition mission to Los Alamos.

“The second part of the Supplemental EIS explores disposal of plutonium once extracted from pits.  The options include vitrification and storage at DWPF, burial at the WIPP, burial at a repository that does not exist, or burning as MOX fuel in a reactor. MOX is a proven fuel that is used around the world, in a variety of reactors. Storing plutonium glass or ceramic in canisters or underground will not reduce the global inventories of plutonium.  As a chemist, such waste forms may slow me down, but I can still recover the plutonium. The only one of these options that will destroy plutonium (through fission burning), or make it unsuitable for weapons (by changing the isotopic mix) is to burn it in a nuclear reactor.  Therefore I support conversion to MOX fuel as the preferred disposition option for our country.”

The activists had their say as well.

“I am sticking by my comment that LANS corporate strategists see Plutonium disposition as a lever to bring not just money and programs but also to help bring major new facilities to LANL, whether it be a bigger and better PF-4. Other sites and contractors will also have their eyes on the same kind of prize,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.

“The notion that parallel pit conversion facilities would be built in two separate sites is just one of the many obscene and irrational elements of this plan.”  

In comments submitted to DOE, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability made the following statement.

“By the Department of Energy’s (DOE) own admission, the EIS process for which comments are being sought began five years ago. As this process has faced continual delays reveals that lack of clarity and direction plague the troubled plutonium disposition program. And, even more telling, the NEPA process for the overall plutonium disposition program began in June 1994, with the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS). In the subsequent 18 years not a single gram of plutonium, beyond small amounts of test material, has been dealt with via the so-called ‘preferred alternative’ — use of the controversial mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in aging nuclear power reactors.

“This program stands as a monument to DOE’s ineptitude in pursuing a misguided mission that has fallen prey to manipulation by special interests such as the French government-owned company AREVA. What was once a non-proliferation program has sadly devolved into a program which now has as its main goal to financially benefit contractors working on the MOX program at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

Another public hearing will be at 5:30 p.m. today at the Courtyard by Marriott in Santa Fe. Other hearings are scheduled for Carlsbad; North Augusta, S.C.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Decatur, Ala.