USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

The PEIS on Storage and Disposition is a very detailed document.

It sets out multiple options for dealing with the plutonium surplus:

- For MOX, it envisages four main plutonium consumption routes:
use in existing light-water   reactors (LWRs), in refurbished currently partly built LWRs;
in "evolutionary design" LWRs   or in CANDU reactors in Canada;
and it rejects twelve alternative reactor possibilities on   technical or nonproliferation grounds.

- For immobilization with radionuclides, it accepts three main options as possibilities:
  vitrification in borosilicate glass, with each glass log containing about 84 kgs of plutonium;
  immobilization in ceramic disks, each containing about 4 kgs of plutonium, or
  electrometallurgical treatment. Three other options are rejected, two on technical grounds;
  and underground detonation is rejected as not likely to get a license.

- Two direct disposal options are judged reasonable: immobilization or direct emplacement
  in deep boreholes. Eleven others are rejected on a variety of technical or environmental
  safety grounds.

- The other option is no disposition action and continued storage of the plutonium stocks.

   To comply with the US policy generally discouraging the civilian use of plutonium the MOX fuel fabrication facility would have to meet the following conditions: its construction would take place at a secured DOE site; it would be owned by the government; it would be operated only for the disposition of surplus weapons plutonium; and it would be shut down at the completion of its disposition mission.

   A coalition of fourteen opposition groups strongly condemned the DOE for opting for the MOX option. The DOE argued that using some US military origin plutonium in MOX fuel would encourage the Russians to do likewise. According to the energy secretary, of a hundred comments submitted on the twin track plan, about half opposed MOX and half opposed immobilization using vitrification.

   One opponent of the FPEIS said in frustration: "Beyond the usual findings that it is rife with flagrant redundancies; is an incomprehensible maze of meaningless tables; is so inconsistent with other documents to qualify as a parallel universe of information; is devoid of the meaningful information numerous groups/people requested in writing last year; [it] has enough sharp, unanticipated twists of logic to qualify the writers (and maybe paid activists) for mental disability...".

   And so the positions were set for the plutonium debate, which continues to the present. A national networking coalition of over two hundred groups formed, under the banner of ÔNIX MOX' ('nix' in German stands for 'nothing'), with links to opponents of MOX in Europe and Russia. The coalition has organized regional protest meetings and annual protest days to focus popular and media attention on the implications of plutonium use. Typical of the opponents' criticisms are those from the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC), a coalition of environmental, consumer and public-interest groups, in Washington, DC, which says its members continue to oppose conversion of weapons-grade plutonium to fuel commercial electricity generation. "Converting weapons plutonium to fuel would raise unacceptable security threats at the sites where the work would be done. The sites would immediately become targets for terrorists looking to get their hands on plutonium. Fundamentally, the idea is wrong because it centers around presenting plutonium as a commodity rather than a component in a weapon", SECC says.

   DOE continued with rolling public consultation on the environmental impact and the strategic/industrial impact of the dual track plutonium disposition program, and is issuing a series of documents available on DOE's Office of Fissile Materials Disposition web site (in pdf format) on Posted information includes:

- Remarks by Laura Holgate, DOE's Director of the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition,
  at the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (July 1999)
- Supplement to the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Draft Environmental Impact Statement
  Briefing (July 1999)
- Speech by Laura Holgate to the Sixth Annual International Policy Forum Management and
  Disposition of Nuclear Weapons Materials (June 1999)

   Former Secretary of Energy Federico Peña appointed Laura Holgate in June 1998. A former Defense Department official with expertise in nonproliferation, she took up her position in August 1998.

   Also published by DOE are a series of detailed press notices on ongoing aspects of the disposition program. They cover technical plutonium management developments at various DOE labs; and policy and legal developments such as the Environmental Assessment for the "Parallex Project" fuel manufacture and shipment (dated September 1999). The Parallex Project, involving experimental use of US-origin MOX in Canadian reactors at Chalk River nuclear reservation, has proved to be very controversia l- particularly with northern communities along the route from the fabrication plant at Los Alamos to Canada (the details will be covered in a future Plutonium Investigation issue in spring 2000).

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