USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

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Savannah River Site (SRS) Plutonium Processing Program

   According to the Draft EIS for the Savannah River Site, DOE wants to reprocess a little over 19 tonnes of irradiated fuel and less than a ton of other material, including 16 bundles of targets that were originally intended for the production of plutonium-242 used in nuclear weapons testing and development This is about 28% of the total mass of material discussed in the Draft EIS. Nearly all this nuclear material is already at SRS. The reprocessing is scheduled to have been completed by the end of 2001.

   A second technique DOE proposes to use is called "melt and dilute" (m&d). The irradiated fuel or other types of nuclear material will be heated, diluted with depleted uranium (if the fuel contains HEU), and sealed in stainless steel containers. DOE hopes that this process will produce a stable waste form.

   Melt and dilute is DOE's preferred alternative for about 28 tonnes of irradiated fuel (about 41% of the total mass). Very little of this irradiated fuel is at SRS now. Most of it is at research or test reactors, where some is still being used. When, or even whether, it will arrive at SRS is uncertain.

   US-irradiated fuel will arrive at SRS up to 2035, while shipments of US-origin irradiated fuel from outside the United States should be complete by 2010. The m&d program was quietly suspended in June 1999 due to budgetary constraints, then reinstated shortly afterwards. The m&d plant would cost about $1.9 billion to build and operate during its 30-year life span.

   Other work planned for SRS is plutonium immobilization. Plutonium that is to be disposed of is to be baked into ceramic pucks at a yet-to-be-constructed plutonium immobilization plant. The pucks are then to be inserted into metal cages and the cages placed inside canisters of vitrified high-level waste. The vitrification of the high-level waste will take place at the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF), which has been vitrifying SRS's waste since 1996, a formidable task, since SRS stores about 34 million gallons of such waste in forty-nine carbon-steel tanks.

   Before treatment, plutonium would be stored at several SRS facilities. Much plutonium would be placed in one of the site's five inactive nuclear reactors - with "K" reactor prominent. Non-pit military plutonium would be stored at a proposed Actinide Packaging and Storage Facility, if this facility comes into being. Construction began on the installation in 1998, but, citing rising costs, DOE unofficially abandoned the project in 1999.

   Some twenty-two tonnes of stainless steel and zirconium-clad fuel rods are also stored at SRS. Because they cannot be melted, those rods will be shipped to Idaho for long-term storage, DOE says. SRS already poses a huge cleanup challenge, with tritium contamination emerging as an increasingly large problem.

   Seven SRS employees were contaminated with plutonium on their clothing and skin during an incident on 1 September 1999. Four of the seven inhaled the plutonium while involved in repackaging plutonium stored in the container when the incident occurred. Following a regional meeting of groups opposed to the SRS MOX project in October 1999, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability commented: "A planned MOX fabrication facility at SRS is little more than a 'perpetual pork machine'". SRS is operated by an integrated team led by Westinghouse Savannah River Company. The team also includes Bechtel Savannah River Inc., Babcock & Wilcox Savannah River Company, and British Nuclear Fuels, Limited Savannah River Corporation. The last is responsible for the solid waste program.

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Pantex and Pits

   Pantex, near Amarillo Texas, is the DOE's interim storage site for plutonium weapons cores ("pits") from dismantled weapons. The plant presently stores more than 12,000 pits in old, unsealed containers (one per pit) and in 1960s era above ground bunkers. The Record of Decision for the Final Pantex Site Wide Environmental Impact Statement allowed for storing up to 20,000 pits on an interim basis. The final PEIS on Storage and Disposition designated Pantex as the long-term storage site.

   Storage conditions at the plant are, nevertheless, far from satisfactory. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) said in Technical Report #18: The Safety of Storing Pits at Pantex: "For most of the pits now in storage at Pantex, the outer metallic cladding is the only reliable containment". In the summer of 1998 Pantex was forced to move thirty pits from one bunker to another due to temperature concerns during a record heat wave.

   DNFSB Recommendation 99-1, issued in August 1999, calls for four steps to improve the short-term safety of pits at Pantex. (The DNFSB recommendations can be found at

   A response by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, published in the Federal Register of 29 October stated: "Actions include a systems analysis study to generate programmatic requirements for a pit shipping container, a review of pit surveillance data to characterize pit integrity in current environments, and increasing the pit repackaging rate to 200 pits per month".

   Up to 4,000 "national asset" plutonium pits will remain indefinitely at Pantex scheduled to be stored in a single, upgraded structure, Building 12-116. The balance will be shipped to Savannah River-if possible.

   After an investment of $50 million and five years of development, less than 50 of the 10,000 pits at Pantex are in AT-400A containers, which were originally put forward as the answer to corrosion safety problems and suitable for both storage and shipping. The slow pace of the project led DOE to abandon it in favor of a cheaper container that is unsuitable for shipping. DOE thus created a potential choke point in plans to trans-ship the packaged pits for disassembly. As the DNFSB said in August 1999, "DOE's program plan for materials disposition is in peril regarding recycling excess pits into mixed oxide fuel, because there is no container suitable for shipping the pits from the Pantex Plant to the Savannah River Site, and no plans exist for development of such a container".

   Plutonium transports loom large in the United States. In the past two years or so, approximately 1,200 nuclear weapon triggers (plutonium pits) were trucked to Pantex from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. Another sixty pits were trucked to Pantex from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. A DNFSB weekly report of December 1998 states that approximately 18,500 containers of plutonium bearing materials in a wide assortment of forms will be moved from California, Idaho, Washington, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado to SRS in the next 10-15 years. According to DOE's Draft Integrated Pit Storage Program Plan, AT-400 containers are to be replaced with the AL-R8 container requiring a "sealed insert" for all pits. DOE plans to repackage pits over a five- to six-year period (as DOE stated could be done with AT-400A) at a cost of $7-9 million, with a production rate of 200 per month on two proposed lines. However, DOE has yet to come up with the necessary overpack for the AL-R8.

   In May 1999, Don Moniak of the public interest organization Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping (STAND) accused Pantex management of bad faith. STAND released to the media internal documents from Pantex that revealed that while Pantex was publicly describing the nuclear non-proliferation benefits of processing plutonium for disposition, Pantex officials were secretly pursuing large-scale plutonium pit production operations. "The Plutonium Pit Disassembly and Conversion facility is the first step in disposition and ALSO the first step in pit production", Moniak points out. Pit production in the United States had centered on Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which halted production in 1989.

   In April 1999 Philadelphia based company Day and Zimmerman, Inc. announced a merger agreement with the Mason and Hanger Corporation. The latter has been the primary contractor at Pantex since 1956, responsible for assembly, disassembly and storage of nuclear weapons components.
(see also:

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   The Hanford nuclear reservation covering some 560 square miles in Washington State was a key production center for military plutonium from its start-up in 1943. Many of its operations - including nine production reactors at peak - are now shutdown, and the clean up of over fifty years of plutonium production and processing is now the main task for the over 10,000-person workforce engaged at the site, judged to be the most radioactively contaminated in the United States. Hanford intends to glassify 54 million gallons of radioactive waste buried in 177 underground tanks, an endeavor that could take 30 years and cost $40 billion to $50 billion. In July 1998 the UK company BNFL led a consortium that won a $6.9 billion DOE contract to treat and immobilize 20 to 25% of the waste over the next 20 years.

   Under an earlier 1989 Tri-Party Agreement signed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DOE and Washington State, DOE agreed to pump the radioactive liquid waste from 149 aging, single-shell tanks into newer, double-shell tanks as an "interim stabilization" measure, a project has been plagued with repeated changes and time extensions.

   But Hanford contractors have promoted new plutonium production and processing projects, particularly over the past year or so. One project being pushed is the re-opening of the Fast Flux Test Reactor (FFTF), which originally operated for 10 years to 1992. FFTF has since been maintained on standby, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. In fiscal year 2000 the cost will be $28 million. DOE calculates that it will cost about $200 million to dismantle the FFTF or $230 million to revive it by 2004.

   Amongst the possible uses now promoted for FFTF are plutonium-238 production for NASA space batteries; the accelerator transmutation of waste; isotope experimentation and tritium production (for details visit: But the Government Accountability Project (GAP) charges that the civilian missions proposed for FFTF mask the true rationale which, according to a recently released internal memorandum, is production of "special isotopes in significant quantities for national security".
Another 'argument' to restart FFTF is the availability of 'cheap' Kalkar plutonium fuel. The German fast breeder reactor SNR-300 at Kalkar has never been put into operation - the site has been transformed into an adventure park - and the German government has not yet decided what to do with the core it has in store. The U.S. idea to use it at Hanford would solve many problems in Germany...

   Critics such as the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) - comprising over thirty local, regional, and national organizations representing the concerns of communities living in the shadows of the US nuclear weapons complex sites - charge that investment in FFTF development will divert resources away from the major cleanup programs such as that for the old K-Basins, pools holding 2,300 tonnes of irradiated nuclear fuel. Cleanup of the K-Basins is expected to cost $1.6 billion and to be completed by 2005.

   The DOE has recently held public consultation on its PEIS for FFTF and other Hanford projects. Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) and its contractor, Battelle were commissioned in the summer of 1999 to produce a preliminary scoping plan for FFTF which concluded there was a "compelling need and support for the restart of FFTF".

   But proliferation concerns have been raised by ANA, the Nuclear Control Institute, and others over FFTF restart. DOE's Office of Nonproliferation and National Security looking at the use of plutonium fuel in the FFTF, in the context of international nuclear nonproliferation treaties.

   FFTF formerly ran on a plutonium-based MOX fuel. DOE currently plans to use an on-site supply of leftover MOX fuel for six years, then to import the Kalkar fuel from Germany, and later to convert to HEU fuel. A final decision on whether to restart the FFTF is scheduled for December 2000.

   One other main Hanford plant under examination is the never-used Fuels and Materials Examination Facility (FMEF), which is being considered for the role of specialist chemical reprocessor of plutonium-238. The New York Times reported in October 1999 that the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford was shut down for long periods in 1996 and 1997 after 17 violations of rules meant to avoid criticalities. The violations took place as technicians tried "intermittently to stabilize liquid plutonium left over from weapons production". Transuranic plutonium-contaminated sludge wastes are destined for final disposal at the WIPP facility in New Mexico.
(See also Hanford Watch: and Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA):

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Rocky Flats

   Rocky Flats plutonium warhead production plant near Denver, Colorado, which halted further fabrication of warhead pits in November 1989, presently holds up to 25% of the surplus weapons plutonium destined for management at Pantex or Savannah River. Operated by Kaiser-Hill for the DOE, the plant has a long history of plutonium mismanagement problems, including more than one ton of plutonium that, according to the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, cannot be accounted for. Details of three major plutonium accidents at the plant, a fire in 1957, leaks from waste stored outdoors between 1954 and 1966, and another fire in 1969 became known only decades later as part of a dose reconstruction study for Rocky Flats begun in 1989 and completed in 1999. An analysis of the longer term implications of these accidents was published in the summer of 1999 by the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
(For details visit:

   Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, as it has been renamed, is now focused on the cleanup of radioactive and toxic contamination. According to DOE plans, cleanup operations are contingent on removal of the large quantity of plutonium remaining at Rocky Flats. A decision by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in August 1999 means transuranic (TRU) plutonium contaminated wastes previously destined to be shipped to Savannah River will now go to WIPP. The decision states: "An estimated 30% of the cans (containing >10% Pu or >200 grams Pu, much of it in the form of plutonium oxide powder) will require material repackaging in a glovebox to get below WIPP limits prior to packaging in the pipe component. Kaiser-Hill is preparing a report to justify the reclassification of this material from high risk (due to presence of pyrophoric Pu and reactive metals) to low risk so it can be sent to WIPP without further stabilization".

   In the middle of June 1999, after several delays, the first shipment of an estimated 2,000 55-gallon barrels of TRU wastes left under the gaze of protestors. The shipping of some 315 kgs of plutonium fluoride residues (containing approximately 140 kgs of plutonium), from Rocky Flats has been at issue for some years, but especially since DOE plans were published for comment in November 1997. The shipment plans were announced in November 1998.

    (For details visit: The DOE says that for "plutonium metal or oxide that would result from processing technologies involving plutonium separation, disposition would be by immobilization in glass or ceramic material for disposal in a monitored geologic repository pursuant to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (consistent with decisions to be made under the department's Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS)". DOE plans to complete removal of surplus plutonium from Rocky Flats by 2003.

   If all transportation permissions are received, the DOE hopes to complete clean- up of the site by 2006, as detailed in an agreement between DOE, EPA and the state of Colorado.
(see also: Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center:

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

   LLNL is operated by the University of California for DOE and is located about fifty miles east of San Francisco. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was set up to carry out R&D on all facets of nuclear weapons. It has long played a key role in the inertial confinement fusion program, and was in the news in 1999 for problems with the National Ignition Facility, now under construction at the site. The Laboratory is the lead site for work on plutonium immobilization. It will perform an increasing amount of other work with plutonium, according to briefing papers from the Federal Office of Management and Budget obtained by the non-profit Tri-Valley CAREs in mid-1999. The documents indicate that DOE will "move promptly", to the Laboratory, work on the W80 nuclear warhead developed at Los Alamos, a move that will increase the plutonium pit work at Livermore. Lawrence Livermore already has about 880 pounds of plutonium and is slated to receive more from Rocky Flats.
(see also: and, for another point of view,

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   The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory has been pressing for involvement in the national plutonium program since 1994, when DOE mothballed its partially completed Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) - a new design that DOE had planned to test at the no-longer-operating EBR-II reactor. The Plutonium Focus Area - a partnership that includes the DOE Idaho Operations Office, Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies Company, and Argonne National Laboratory - continues to analyze plutonium stabilization needs. Capsules comprising sealed containers of MOX fuel made from weapons-grade plutonium have been irradiated at INEEL in the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR). The fuel was designed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and fabricated at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Idaho research site, developed over an area of 890 square miles, is home to the world's largest concentration of experimental nuclear reactors, 52 units have operated at the complex since it opened in 1949. About a dozen INEEL reactors are still operable.

   INEEL currently stores approximately 60 percent of DOE's inventory of transuranic waste. DOE sent much of this waste to Idaho from Rocky Flats where it was a byproduct of nuclear weapons production. DOE must ship 100,000 cubic feet - 15,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste - to WIPP by the end of 2002. If INEEL fails to meet that plan, a 1995 court order could prevent it from receiving irradiated fuel from foreign reactors for storage. The first shipment of INEEL plutonium-contaminated waste reached the WIPP repository in April 1999. Record keeping anomalies discovered by a DOE audit in June 1999 temporarily interrupted the shipments of plutonium contaminated waste to WIPP. In total all 315,000 barrels of waste must be removed by from INEEL by 2019.

   About one-third of the 2.3 million cubic feet of stored plutonium-contaminated waste at INEEL is not radioactive enough to qualify for disposal at WIPP. As a result, the DOE signed a $1 billion contract with BNFL Inc. in 1998 to build a mixed-waste treatment plant at the Idaho site, to handle up to 185,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste. The facility centers in an incinerator which is hotly contested and in early February 2000 was still going through the permitting process.

   In April 1999 the DOE named INEEL, in cooperation with Argonne National Laboratory, as the US location of the US and Russian International Centers for Environmental Safety. The Centers will plan and manage cooperative environmental technology development and demonstration projects associated with managing irradiated nuclear fuel and the cleanup of nuclear sites.

   INEEL has been storing irradiated fuel and core debris from Three Mile Island-2 since July 1986. In March 1999 INEEL moved the first shipment of irradiated fuel and core debris into dry storage, thus meeting the 1995 "Idaho Settlement Agreement".

   At INEEL high-level waste from irradiated nuclear fuel processing is stored as a dry granular powder in bins, while sodium bearing liquid waste is stored as liquid in underground storage tanks.
(see also:

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Los Alamos

   Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico produced the first US plutonium bombs, which were tested at Alamogordo in July, 1945, and dropped on Nagasaki the next month. Since then the labs have played a key role in US plutonium policy, both in warhead design and development and more recently in experimental mixed oxide fuel (MOX) manufacture. In the past two years, DOE has allocated $3.425 million for MOX fuel fabrication R&D work at LANL and another $10.075 million for a LANL/Oak Ridge program to irradiate test pellets made at LANL in the ATR at Idaho. However, a March 1999 LANL report called into question the ability of the lab to successfully fabricate MOX test fuel using weapons-grade plutonium, because the morphology of weapons-grade plutonium differs significantly from that of reactor-grade plutonium.

   LANL has taken the lead for many years in pushing for development of accelerator-driven transmutation technology (ATW) for the long-term treatment of plutonium-bearing irradiated fuel. A DOE report to Congress in early November 1999 on the ATW of nuclear waste found that a program to treat 87,000 tonnes of commercial irradiated fuel would cost about $280 billion over its lifetime and would take 117 years.

   In September 1999 LANL announced that it had perfected a new in vitro technique to monitor radiological workers who may have been exposed to plutonium. The technique, which uses thermal ionization mass spectrometry, or TIMS, makes possible the detection of a lifetime dose of plutonium that is as low as 0.1 rem. The technique is thus forty times more sensitive than the measurement levels associated with existing alpha spectroscopy methods, LANL reports.

   In 1999 the reputation and integrity of LANL, which is operated by the University of California under contract with DOE, were severely impaired by allegations of espionage and lax security.
(see also:

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