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Judge throws wrench into plan to split plutonium ‘pit’ production

SANTA FE – A federal judge has thrown a wrench into the federal government’s plans to house most of the nation’s production of the plutonium cores for nuclear weapons at a facility in South Carolina instead of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A federal judge has at least temporarily halted shutdown of the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a development that could affect the federal government’s plans to move most production of plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons away from Los Alamos National Laboratory. (SOURCE: High Flyer Photography)

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs issued an injunction blocking shutdown of the mixed-oxide fuel project, or MOX, at the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C. A stop-work order for MOX by U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, putting several hundred jobs at risk, was to have taken effect this week.

South Carolina sued the federal government after the Department of Energy recently announced it was stopping construction of the MOX plant, which was intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors as part of a nonproliferation agreement between the U.S. and Russia. The giant facility broke ground more than a decade ago and has faced delays, litigation and costs ballooning from an early estimate of $4 billion to a projected $17 billion.

Now, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration wants to repurpose the MOX building to make plutonium “pits” for bombs. In May, the Nuclear Weapons Council accepted an NNSA plan to use the Savannah River building to make 50 pits a year, coupled with “an enduring mission” to make at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos, currently the only place in the country set up to make the softball-sized cores.

The Department of Defense wants 80 new pits per year – none has been made since 2011, when Los Alamos completed the last of 29 for Navy submarine missiles – by 2030 for a massive weapons modernization program that was part of a deal between the Democratic Obama administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Critics and a former NNSA director have questioned whether any new pits are necessary, with thousands made during the Cold War in storage.

The plan to divide pit production between two sites has angered the congressional delegations of the two states. New Mexico’s wants all pit making to stay at Los Alamos, while South Carolina’s wants the MOX project to proceed. The federal nuclear projects come with billions of dollars in jobs and facility money, with MOX apparently the more lucrative.

Judge Childs’ injunction allows work to continue at MOX for now. South Carolina state government and DOE will present additional arguments in the case down the line.

A spokesman for the NNSA said Monday that the agency is “reviewing the impacts of the court decision on our current and future enduring national security missions at the Savannah River Site.”

‘Dumping ground’

In its lawsuit, South Carolina argued that ending the MOX project would make South Carolina a dumping ground, because Congress hasn’t approved any other disposal method for the warhead plutonium that had been scheduled for conversion to MOX fuel.

But the DOE has said it now wants to mix the warhead plutonium with inert material and then dispose of it at another New Mexico site – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad – in a much cheaper process dubbed “dilute and dispose.” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others have questioned whether WIPP was designed for this kind of material.

Udall has also questioned whether WIPP has room for diluted plutonium on top of the transuranic radioactive waste, contaminated material left over from weapons work, that it takes from national labs.

Paperwork change

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Environment Department is considering an application from the DOE to amend a New Mexico state environmental permit to alter how WIPP’s radioactive waste is measured, a paperwork change that would expand the underground facility’s capacity.

The Energy Department proposes that only the stored radioactive waste itself, in inner containers within “overpacks,” should be used to calculate volume, not the space inside overpacks that aren’t filled all the way. The amendment would mean WIPP is only about one-third full instead of half-full.

In response to Journal questions about whether the state is inclined to accept diluted plutonium, deputy NMED Secretary Juan-Carlos “J.C.” Borrego said in an email: “In the past, we’ve made it clear we expect the waste stored at WIPP to be emplaced safely and properly. We do not believe either a permit modification, or a change in federal law would be required to store waste that meets WIPP’s Waste Acceptance Criteria.” He then added that WIPP already has about 5 tons of material similar to the “dilute and dispose” material.

Borrego also said: “It is also important to note that the volume of defense-related transuranic waste at Energy Department sites around the country already exceeds the volume limit cited in the Land Withdrawal Act,” the federal law under which WIPP was created.

On the status of the Department of Energy’s application for a permit modification on how waste volume is measured at WIPP, Borrego said this week that the Environment Department “is committed to a thorough and expeditious review of this modification request.” NMED on June 1 elevated the status of the application change to a level that requires a public hearing.

Congressional measures

The fight over what happens at the weapons sites in South Carolina and New Mexico is playing out in Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is pushing a defense budget amendment that would prohibit the Department of Energy from terminating MOX. And New Mexico members of Congress have their own budget measure that would require an independent review of the Energy Department analysis that led to its two-site pit-production plan.

“DOE’s own estimates suggest standing up a second pit production mission will double the cost of modernizing this element of our nuclear deterrent, but as the courts are suggesting the plan is likely to involve even more flaws and inevitable delays,” said a statement from the office of Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. “That is why Senator Heinrich has included language in the Defense Authorization Act requiring an independent review of DOE’s analysis. We must ensure a data-driven decision, not a political outcome that the explanations are trying to catch up with.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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