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Plutonium coming and going for NM? New ‘pit’ plan may mean more waste at WIPP

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The feds can taketh plutonium away, even as they giveth plutonium back.

On Thursday, agencies in charge of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex decided to send most of production of cores for nuclear weapons to South Carolina, leaving New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory – currently the only place set up to make the so-called plutonium “pits” – with a smaller share of the work, much to the chagrin of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

The fate of plutonium work at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina has become connected to the federal government’s plans for both Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad. (SOURCE: High Flyer 2017)

But the feds also pulled the plug on an operation in South Carolina intended to turn excess weapons-grade plutonium into fuel rods for nuclear power plants, much to the chagrin of that state’s congressional delegation.

Now, the 34 metric tons of plutonium that was to be processed at the federal government’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., may be headed west to New Mexico, for storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, after it has been diluted and mixed with inert material.

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry confirmed in a letter Thursday that DOE is removing plutonium from South Carolina, adding, “We are currently processing plutonium for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and intend to continue to do so.”

The proposal to use WIPP for disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium is connected to a recent DOE application to amend a New Mexico state environmental permit to change how WIPP’s capacity for storing waste is measured.

“I certify that the Department will work with the state of New Mexico to address the capacity issues related to receipt of the full 34 metric tons at WIPP,” Perry wrote in his letter to U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., chair of a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But others say there will not be room for the weapons-grade plutonium at WIPP – which was established to take other kinds of radioactive waste from LANL and other national labs – even if DOE’s proposed permit modification is approved.

“The strict legal limits to the amount of waste that can be stored at WIPP were a crucial part of the final agreement between the Department of Energy and the state of New Mexico that is enshrined in the Land Withdrawal Act (which established WIPP) and implemented with regulatory oversight by the State,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement Friday.

“I have serious questions about whether there is enough room at WIPP to store additional waste from Savannah River, given the clear legal limits in the Act, which were negotiated … following a lawsuit New Mexico won against DOE when I served as Attorney General.”

Udall added: “If DOE is asking New Mexico to take on additional waste missions beyond what is authorized by current law, unilateral action (by DOE) is absolutely not an option.”

MOX plant on hold

Here’s what has happened so far.

On Thursday, the Nuclear Weapons Council accepted a recommendation by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) – a semi-autonomous wing of the DOE – on where to ramp up production of pits to 80 a year by 2030 as part of major and expensive modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The adopted plan calls for 50 pits a year to be made at the Savannah River Site, by repurposing a facility there, and production of at least 30 a year at LANL. New Mexico’s congressional delegation had fought to keep all the pit work at Los Alamos as NNSA studied the issue over at least the last two years. No pits have been made since LANL completed a set of 29 for submarine missiles in 2011.

New Mexico’s U.S. Sens. Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep Ben Ray Luján on Thursday called moving pit production away from LANL, where new underground “modules” had been proposed to increase pit production, a waste.

“Instead of wasting billions of dollars exploring the construction of a new facility that will likely never be completed somewhere else, the Department of Energy should immediately move forward with the new, modular plutonium facilities at Los Alamos – as originally endorsed by both Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council,” they said in a statement.

But there was anger among South Carolina’s political leaders, too. At issue is the future of the troubled Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, at Savannah River.

The facility was conceived for conversion of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors as part of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

But the giant project, which broke ground more than a decade ago, has faced delays, litigation and costs ballooning from an early estimate of $4 billion to a projected $17 billion now. In conjunction with announcement of the plans for splitting pit production between LANL and Savannah River, Perry executed his waiver authority to call off the MOX mission. The building would instead be converted to pit production.

That consolation prize wasn’t well received by South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and two of the state’s U.S. representatives. They issued a statement saying that the plan to “dilute and dispose” of the many tons of warhead plutonium at WIPP “was already considered and rejected” and “has not been fully vetted.”

They said the MOX program is part of “one of the most important non-proliferation agreements in the history of the world” and “is being abandoned without any clear path forward” even as the MOX plant is more than halfway complete. “We plan to hold DOE accountable for this haphazard decision and will press for oversight to ensure taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag for DOE’s mistakes,” the statement also said.

The number of jobs and amount of funding at stake for the various plutonium-related operations, from pits to the MOX project to potentially moving the weapons-grade plutonium issue to WIPP, aren’t clear, since NNSA hasn’t provided numbers. It’s generally accepted that pit-making won’t mean as many jobs in South Carolina as the MOX work would.

Congress does have a role to play in whether the Trump administration’s plans for pit-making and for disposing of the weapons-grade plutonium move forward. While Thursday’s decisions stand as the administration’s final word on what should be done, Congress can still affect what happens through the power of the purse, in the appropriations process.

Udall made that point in his Friday statement. He said the decision to send most pit-production work to South Carolina is “far from final.”

“Congress will have the ultimate say,” he said.

As for the deal with Russia to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium – to reduce the chance of it falling into the hands of terrorists or others with ill intent – it’s on hold while the U.S. figures out how to get rid of the material. “In turn, Russia hasn’t complied either while they wait for us, leading to the current stalemate,” wrote Peter Lyons, a former LANL employee and science adviser to the late U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, in a recent essay for Politico.

Dilute and dispose

The idea of turning the weapons-grade plutonium into powder and diluting it with cement-like material – essentially turning it into waste – for storage at WIPP was conceived by the Obama administration as a cheaper alternative to the MOX process.

Don Hancock, a WIPP watchdog at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, says there’s no way WIPP can take the 34 metric tons of diluted plutonium that MOX was going to transform and also handle waste from places like Los Alamos, Idaho National Laboratory and the Hanford Site in Washington state – even if the rules on WIPP capacity are changed.

And he said Perry failed to mention in his notice of the termination for MOX at Savannah River on Thursday that processing of the weapons-grade plutonium for shipment to WIPP won’t be complete until 2048.

DOE, in its recent application to the New Mexico Environment Department for a permit modification, proposes that only the volume of stored radioactive waste itself, in inner containers within “overpacks,” should be used to calculate total waste, not the overall volume of overpacks that aren’t filled all the way.

The change would mean WIPP is only about one-third full instead of half full.

Hancock said trying to cram more or different kinds of waste into WIPP should require a change in the law that created WIPP.

Udall said, “There must be an ongoing, high-level dialogue between DOE, the state of New Mexico, and the congressional delegation, with ample time for public awareness and input, to ensure New Mexicans have their say on what happens in their state and are fully protected, now and into the future.”

Hancock said pulling the plug on MOX in South Carolina has been long overdue. “It was never a real thing,” he said.

But he said the best option for the weapons-grade plutonium – if the National Academy of Sciences determines that diluted plutonium would be safe – is to store it at Savannah River until another waste depository can be built to hold it because WIPP doesn’t have room. “WIPP should be used for the mission it was built for,” he said.

Hancock noted that “a lot of moving parts” are involved in the DOE’s assorted plutonium plans.

“This is going to an ongoing story for a while,” he said.

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