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WIPP plans will go on even if Russia quits plutonium deal

Should the U.S. continue to hold up its end of the bargain, Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement would likely have little effect on the Department of Energy’s plans to send a parallel portion of plutonium – six metric tons – to New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

That plutonium, which is not quite weapons grade, and would be diluted and packaged to meet disposal criteria at WIPP, is not actually part of the 34 metric tons covered by the agreement. But it is being viewed as a trial run “to establish that it’s cost-effective and safe” to dilute and dispose of it at WIPP, said Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

At Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, the breakdown in the bilateral agreement may deal a decisive blow to already deteriorated relationships between scientists at New Mexico’s national laboratories and their Russian counterparts, who had been working together to iron out the technical aspects of plutonium disposition under the deal, according to Don Hancock with the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.

Lyman said lab-to-lab cooperation had chilled in recent years as Russia has tried to assert itself as a world power.

“What’s happening now is not really going to impact that,” Lyman said. “It’s really the end of that process. Even until last week, the U.S. was optimistic that this was one area that Russia and the U.S. could cooperate. This may be a surprise to the U.S. that they are using this as a bargaining chip for totally unrelated matters.”

With Russia’s announcement, “Russia is free to do what they want and the U.S. is free to do what it wants,” Hancock said. “Since neither side has actually destroyed any plutonium, the only thing that has changed is that we now don’t have a formal, bilateral agreement.”

Lyman noted that Russia’s withdrawal does undermine plans to turn the weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel to be used at commercial nuclear reactors – a plan known as the “MOX” project that has been supported by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and strongly opposed by the Obama administration.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has also opposed the MOX project, citing “massive delays and cost overruns,” according to Lyman, and has advocated for disposing of the surplus plutonium in diluted form in a deep geologic repository.

Located outside Carlsbad, WIPP is the nation’s only deep underground repository for some types of nuclear waste, but the facility remains closed after a radiation accident and underground fire in February 2014. DOE plans to reopen WIPP in December if multiple “readiness reviews” are completed on time.