The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant could be U.S.’ best option for disposing of surplus plutonium through a program the Department of Energy is developing that would see the waste diluted at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina before permanent emplacement at the WIPP facility in southeast New Mexico.
Last week, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) released the results of a two-year review of the DOE’s plans, reporting the idea was feasible with some adjustments as to the space available at WIPP and the expected time the facility would remain open.
Robert Dynes, who chaired the NAS’ committee commissioned by the DOE to study the plan, pointed to a need for more space at WIPP to hold the additional waste, and its non-compliance with the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, a deal between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of plutonium using jointly-approve methods.
Dynes wrote in the study that the technical plan itself was simple, but it must overcome several political and policy factors before approval.
“The dilute and dispose plan is not technically complex. The true challenges lay in the many mostly nontechnical threads that are connected to the technical plan,” Dynes wrote in the study’s preface. “As noted previously–yes, the plan is technically feasible.”
Craig Branson, spokesperson for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said the report showed the DOE’s plan was doable.
“The NAS report validates the feasibility of the dilute and dispose approach. The Department appreciated the opportunity to work with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on this comprehensive report,” Branson said.
“We will thoroughly evaluate the recommendations made by the NAS and implement key actions as we further develop plans for the dilute and dispose process.”
Traditionally, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste – clothing products and equipment radiated from nuclear research and development activities – was the only waste disposed of at WIPP.
But Branson said that by diluting the plutonium, it would become similar to waste already emplaced at the facility.
“NAS states that the diluted plutonium waste is “characteristically different from past TRU waste,” he said. “In fact, the process to down-blend the plutonium oxide used in the dilute and dispose approach results in a transuranic waste stream that is similar to waste streams received in the past from other DOE sites, particularly Rocky Flats and Savannah River Site.
“This waste stream meets the WIPP waste acceptance criteria and will be fully compliant with all regulatory limits and requirements.”
The program was part of the DOE’s broader mission to curtail nuclear proliferation and clean up nuclear site across the country, Branson said.
“DOE/NNSA’s disposition of surplus plutonium supports the Department’s broader nonproliferation mission,” he said. “DOE/NNSA is pursuing the disposition of this material in a timely and cost-effective manner consistent with overarching U.S. national security and nonproliferation objectives.”
And while WIPP’s expected closure date of 2024 would need to be extended for the 30-year program, Branson said such an extension – potentially to 2050 – was already being addressed to allow WIPP to continue accepting TRU waste as it is generated at nuclear laboratories throughout the country.
“As the nation’s only repository for transuranic waste, WIPP is essential to the cleanup of legacy nuclear weapons sites as well as supporting the disposal of TRU waste generated from the vital national security missions performed by NNSA,” he said.
“Therefore, even without this mission, WIPP’s end date would need to be extended past the current permit date in order to continue supporting these vital missions.”
John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force said the dilute and dispose method would also be much cheaper at about $18 billion compared with a previous plan to turn the waste into fuel through the mixed-oxide or MOX plan that was recently shuttered but had a possible expense of $55 billion.
“There’s a significant savings for it at WIPP,” Heaton said. “Once you dilute and dispose of it, you also don’t need the constant monitoring safeguards that would have been required by the MOX method.
Heaton said storing diluted plutonium has already occurred at WIPP, with about three tons emplaced from the DOE’s Rocky Flats Plant, a facility that built nuclear weapons near Denver until 1992.
“This system is not new for WIPP,” Heaton said. “That’s what WIPP does. It takes diluted plutonium that’s TRU waste.”
The diluted plutonium, mostly coming from the Pantex facility in Texas, would be turned into an oxide at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico before being sent to Savannah River to be diluted.
At that point, the waste would become contact-handled, the form of TRU waste with the least radiation, Heaton said.
He said more funding should be invested in the project, so it can be completed sooner.
“The dilution process is expected to be a long-term program,” Heaton said. “Getting done on a faster track makes a lot of sense to me. If we draw it out, we don’t know what kinds of policy changes could occur.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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