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Dispute centers over what to do with surplus weapons-grade plutonium

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Carlsbad leaders recently re-entered a long-running national debate about what the country should do with tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium – staking opposing views.

The shuttered southeast New Mexico nuclear waste repository known as WIPP has been floated as a potential final resting place for the nuclear material – an idea to which the Department of Energy has warmed in recent years and which Richardson, a former U.S. energy secretary, opposes.

Carlsbad leaders welcome the idea of downblending, or diluting, the nation’s weapons-grade plutonium with inert materials to turn it into transuranic waste that could be permanently disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

RICHARDSON: Wrote to Sen. Reid about MOX

RICHARDSON: Wrote to Sen. Reid about MOX

In a letter sent to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Richardson slammed that idea and urged support for a plan to turn weapons-grade plutonium into “mixed oxide” fuel, or MOX, that could be used at commercial nuclear power plants.

An arms-control agreement reached with Russia in 2000 when Richardson was energy secretary mandates each country permanently render useless 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by using it at civilian reactors – the MOX avenue.

That program is running over budget.

About $4 billion has been spent to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina that originally was projected to cost $1.5 billion, according to a study last year by the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that has advocated for reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Cost estimates to complete the project range from $3 billion to $30 billion – depending on the study cited – and DOE has been exploring other options.

The U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement “is working, despite all the tensions in U.S.-Russia relations,” Richardson said in the Aug. 20 letter, “and I am on the record supporting project completion in opposition to certain administration officials, including some in my former department, in their aggressive campaign against MOX.”

Asked what prompted the letter, Richardson spokeswoman Caitlin Kelleher emailed a statement: “Should the MOX facility not be completed in South Carolina, he fears the DOE will make the WIPP facility a high-level waste dump and he finds that unacceptable.”

The U.S. has designated about 50 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium that it wants to get rid of in such a way that it cannot be accessed again for nuclear weapons – and can be kept out of the hands of terrorists, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

JANWAY: Wants to dilute, bury material

JANWAY: Wants to dilute, bury material

“Dilution and disposal in a deep geologic repository is a safer, more permanent solution to ensuring nonproliferation,” said Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway in a letter to Reid dated Sept. 3 – a response to Richardson’s letter. “If non-proliferation is your intent, then the clear path forward is disposal in WIPP.

“This is a national decision, we recognize that. But we are a community of taxpayers, within a state of taxpayers, and we volunteered to host a defense-only deep geologic waste disposal facility that permanently removes risk from the biosphere.”

Some experts say putting weapons-grade plutonium – even downblended to make it less “hot” – would require additional permits and an expansion of WIPP’s mission.

An underground fire and unrelated radiation release in February 2014 shut down WIPP indefinitely. DOE officials have estimated it will cost more than half a billion dollars to clean up the facility.

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