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Plutonium disposal at WIPP considered

CARLSBAD – The likelihood the Department of Energy might use the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium increased with the release of a report over the weekend.

The report provided a cost estimate of a “federal mixed oxide nuclear program” from the Department of Energy and indicates that the DOE is considering using WIPP as a lower cost alternative to the oxide nuclear program.

The mixed oxide nuclear program, or MOX, is intended to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial nuclear fuel. In April, a group of scientists advocated for the release of the report and for the DOE to stop the mixed oxide nuclear program altogether.

The report was required by the Omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in mid-December to review the costs of two plutonium disposition options.

It states that a cost-effective alternative to the MOX program would be down-blending the surplus weapons plutonium and having it packaged for final disposal at WIPP.

Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with the International Panel on Fissile Material, both issued statements urging the DOE to cancel the MOX program and replace it with a safer, cost-effective alternative.

That cost-effective alternative would be sending the surplus plutonium to WIPP.

A news release from the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the MOX program would cost a minimum of $47.5 billion.

“The MOX program has gotten so expensive, the U.S. can’t afford to do it,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist for the group. “The alternative to send the plutonium to WIPP is simpler and cheaper.”

To send plutonium for disposal at WIPP, the repository would first have to be reopened fully. The facility has been closed since February 2014 after a radiological release forced a shutdown.

The report strengthens the Union of Concerned Scientists’ opinion on the matter, because of the overall cost of the MOX program.

The funding for whichever method the DOE uses must also be approved by Congress.

Tom Clements, director for environmental group Savannah River Site Watch in South Carolina, said that he opposes the MOX fuel program, but also does not believe disposing the plutonium at WIPP is a viable option either.

The Land Withdrawal Act, the law governing WIPP, would have to be changed in order to allow the disposal of more plutonium at the facility.

Clements said he does not believe there is any way for the MOX program to be completed, unless Congress were to approve more funds for the project.

A second report on more plutonium disposition options is set to be released in September, which will influence decisions made by Congress and the DOE about the MOX program.