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
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.
(see also: http://www.ceip.org/programs/npp/yucca.htm
to Sites Highlights
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: http://www.wipp.carlsbad.nm.us/index.htm)
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.
(See also: http://www.sric.org)
to Sites Highlights
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
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 (http://www.ca.sandia.gov)