USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

Site Highlights

Yucca Mountain

   The main federal policy for the long-term management of high level commercial irradiated nuclear fuel - containing most of the nation's commercial plutonium - dates from a 1982 law requiring the DOE to build a final repository and to take responsibility for the fuel by end of January 1998. DOE is considering only one location for this repository, a 230-square mile site at Yucca Mountain near the DOE nuclear warhead test site in Nevada. As DOE defaulted on the statutory deadline due to successive delays in the repository program, electricity utilities and state agencies threatened to sue DOE to force the government both to start taking over management of the 38,000 tonnes of irradiated fuel in temporary storage at over seventy reactor sites; and to stop requiring utilities to pay a total of $600 million annually into the federal nuclear waste fund created to pay for the irradiated fuel program. Over $15 billion has been paid into the fund. DOE offered a compensation package to utilities if they did not sue, but in October 1998 the US Federal Court of Claims found in favor of the first utility to take a case forward.

   Even if all plans for Yucca repository development are now met, the DOE says that the repository can not be ready until 2010 at the earliest. DOE proposes to spend nearly $37 billion from 1999 to 2116 (the estimated closure date for the repository) on the irradiated fuel program. $6.5 billion have already been spent on high-level waste research. The repository plan includes using some 93 miles of tunnels 800 to 1,000 feet under the mountain to store the estimated 77,000 tonnes of fuel, including radioactive material from five DOE sites.

   Despite many challenges by Nevada state authorities and others, a DOE ÔViability Assessment' of the Yucca site, released in December 1998, gave the go ahead for further geologic studies. It concluded there were no "showstoppers" that would disqualify the site. A final recommendation is due in 2001.

   In August 1999, the DOE released a draft EIS for the proposed Yucca repository, which has been criticized for lack of attention to transportation risks.

   Public consultation in regard to the site continues in many different forums. In November 1998 over two hundred national and local groups collectively argued that the hydrogeology of the site makes it technically unsuitable. Some organizations such as IEER in Washington DC argue that Yucca Mountain should become a center for research on long-term solutions to storing the nation's nuclear waste. The President has insisted that he will veto any nuclear waste bill passed by Congress that attempts to force the shipment of irradiated fuel to Nevada before a final disposal site is ready.

   A coalition of environment groups backs this position, claiming irradiated fuel shipments would create "Mobile Chernobyls". Critics charge that if the Yucca Mountain repository goes ahead, upwards of 50 million highway users will be exposed over 30 years to 100,000 truck shipments of high-level nuclear waste through 43 states, with the likelihood of hundreds of accidents. Many argue in favor of continued on-site at-reactor monitored storage of irradiated fuel.

   Various alternatives to Yucca Mountain have been suggested. They include South Pacific islands for final disposal or federal nuclear reservations such as Oak Ridge for temporary monitored retrievable storage (MRS). A proposal by a private company to build a storage site for irradiated fuel on a Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah is going through the National Environmental Policy Act process.

   In February 2000 the Senate by a 64-34 vote passed a bill supporting the Yucca site as the preferred option to which shipments of the stocks of spent fuel stores at commercial reactor sites should be made from 2007, if the repository gets the technical and legal go-aheads. At the time of writing it seemed that the Bill would not get endorsement in the House of representatives due to the opposition of the President.
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   The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the DOE's final repository for a complex mix of transuranic (TRU) wastes, mainly from the military and federal nuclear research and development programs. The area where the waste will be buried is situated 2,150 feet underground in a 3,000-foot-thick, 220-million-year-old bedded salt formation.

   The waste site was selected in 1979. Years of technical and regulatory delays in completion of the repository followed. WIPP received its first consignment of waste, from Los Alamos, in late March 199l. The facility had cost $2 billion to build. (Visit: Additional consignments of plutonium-contaminated TRU wastes arrived from INEEL Idaho and Rocky Flats in the summer of 1999. SRS shipments are not slated to start until late in the year 2000, but Hanford shipments are scheduled to begin earlier.

   Shipments may contain these plutonium isotopes: Pu-238, Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241, and Am-241. By law, WIPP cannot be used to store irradiated reactor fuel. In total around 38,000 shipments of waste are destined for WIPP over a 30- to 35-year period. New Mexico State authorities have been reviewing transport safety issues concerning WIPP waste, especially the integrity of the TRUPACT-II containers, for over ten years.

   The State of New Mexico favors WIPP, but is not always in agreement with DOE. The State and DOE have been in dispute in the courts over claimed state's rights to open up consignments of wastes for WIPP. DOE is challenging the right of New Mexico to set its own restrictive environmental standards for hazardous wastes imported into the state for disposal. DOE estimates that re-examining the barrels could cost an additional $10s of millions.

   In late October the New Mexico state authorities issued a Hazardous Waste Facility permit for WIPP that obligates DOE's private contractor, Westinghouse, to post a $100 million bond to demonstrate its financial ability to close the site once it has been filled, something deemed unnecessary by DOE.

   Regional environmental groups and in particular the Southwest Research and Information Center have worked for years to ensure that local people are involved in decision making in regard to WIPP and that the site meets health and safety standards.
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Oak Ridge

   Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is one of three installations on DOE's Oak Ridge Reservation, near Knoxville, Tennessee. The others are K-25, which enriched uranium, and Y-12, which helps to maintain and modernize the US nuclear arsenal.

   ORNL first produced plutonium in the 1940s, and its experimental graphite reactor was the pilot plant for the Hanford production reactors. Indeed "the wartime role of the Laboratory was to find a way to produce and separate gram quantities of plutonium for use in the development of the bomb".

   ORNL's activities are now diverse, but still include work in the area of plutonium. For example, according to the "R & D" section of an FY 99 Annual Operating Plan, dated October 1998, the "Oak Ridge National Laboratory will provide specific technical assessments in the reactor area for...irradiated fuel characterization... work scope planning for non-destructive assay (with computational support) of irradiated MOX fuel at the Ginna reactor".

   MOX research was carried out at ORNL from 1960 to 1973, and some experimental MOX was made for the FFTF reactor at Hanford in the 1970s. Reprocessing development began in 1950, and continued for nearly fifty years to 1998.

   ORNL is DOE's lead laboratory for the reactor-based (MOX) disposition option for management of surplus defense plutonium. R&D to "define, develop, and demonstrate technologies required for implementation of this option" is underway. (Visit ORNL is leading a team of US and Russian technical experts in the design and safety analysis of the hybrid and full MOX cores for Russian fast reactors. The US team also includes Argonne National Laboratory in support of ORNL.

   Further details of US-Russia joint fissile materials disposition projects are listed on the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency web site.

   Plutonium processing is not specifically mentioned in the science and technology section in ORNL's new (October 1999) mission and strategic plan, but development of ceramics, useful for immobilization, and actinide science do merit a mention. The ORNL annual budget is $500 million, with nearly 9000 researchers working at the labs. As of February 2000, the Laboratory is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corp., but the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute will take over from Lockheed around April 2000.

   Other research into nonproliferation and safeguards covering plutonium is carried out by the DOE's Sandia Labs in New Mexico. In FY 1999 $37 million werespent on general safeguards and security programs, including control and accountability of special nuclear materials, physical security systems, classified matter protection and control by Sandia for DOE (