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Sorry saga of America’s plutonium waste problems

Can the Energy Department store 50 tons of weapons-grade plutonium for 10,000 years?  
Robert Alvarez Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8 Mar 21,

”…………The US-Russia plutonium disposal disagreement.

The end of the Cold War led to deep cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, and in 1993 President Clinton issued a directive declaring that the United States is “committed to eliminating, where possible, the accumulation of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.” In September 2000, the United States and Russia signed the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement, under which 34 metric tons of plutonium from weapons would be blended with uranium and serve as mixed-oxide or MOX reactor fuel to produce electricity.

Construction on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant at the Savannah River Site began in 2007, but  the United States abandoned the project because of delays and estimated cost overruns of $30 billion to $50 billion. After a “Red Team” expert review in 2015, the Energy Department decided to pursue a “dilute and dispose” option for storing plutonium, which, the team reported, would cost about half as much as the MOX project. Plutonium from weapons and other forms would be converted from metal to oxide, diluted with a secret adulterant, and then placed  a special container for shipment and disposal at WIPP.
In April of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin took issue with the US decision, saying it “is not what we agreed on.” The dilute-and-dispose option for excess plutonium does not meet the same level of proliferation resistance as the 300-year radiation barrier provided by the “spent fuel standard”; within a few decades after emplacement, radiations levels could fall low enough to allow the plutonium to be recovered, in theory. But the salt formation at WIPP is expected to slowly collapse and seal off the drums of waste. Just the same, in October 2016 Putin suspended implementation of the plutonium disposition agreement “due to Washington’s unfriendly actions toward Russia.”

The dilute and dispose project.

The Energy Department optimistically estimates that its dilution and disposal project will start up in 2027 and store 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by 2049, at a cost of $18 billion. That time estimate seems likely to be unrealistic; according to the Institute for Defense Analysis, “we could find no successful historical major project that both costs more than $700 million and achieved [Energy Department project startup] … in less than 16 years.”

The dilute and dispose project i

  • The Pantex weapons assembly and disassembly plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of pits and other forms of plutonium have to be prepared for safe and secure shipment to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. The majority of the plutonium at Pantex is stored in facilities at that were built in the 1940s. In 2010 and 2017, unexpected 2,000-year rains flooded a major plutonium storage area with several inches of water, which shut down the plant. It cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with about 1,000 containers affected by the flooding.
  • At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, pits will be converted from metal to an oxide that resembles a yellow-to-olive-green talcum-like powder, which is highly dispersible if it escapes from leaking glove boxes. The conversion process takes place at the PF-4 facility, a 69-year-old complex where the Energy Department has a major multibillion-dollar project underway to upgrade aged processes to produce new plutonium bomb triggers. In 2020, a panel of the National Academies of Science warned that “LANL may be a major bottleneck” impacting the plutonium disposal mission. The disposal and production projects could be on a collision course by the middle of this decade, when both are planned to scale up by 10 times.
    • Once Los Alamos produces plutonium oxides, they will be sent to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where the plutonium will be diluted and mixed with a secret adulterant, sometimes via the use of mortars and pestles. About 166,000 specially designed drums will be filled with the dilute fissile material. This task is a tall order for the Savannah site, where the round-the-clock work is expected to scale up by 10 times in a facility that officially exceeded its design life years ago. The facility will be almost 100 years old by 2049 when the dilute and disposal project is expected to be completed.
    • Once the drums are filled, commercial trucks are expected to transport them across the country, from South Carolina to New Mexico and WIPP, in more than 3,888 shipments.
    • As it plans to dispose of its excess plutonium, the Energy Department has, notably, paid little attention to inspections and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a key element of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As noted by the report of an expert panel of the National Research Council, “IAEA monitoring and inspections are an important component of the [Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with Russia]  requirements, and they could also provide enhanced public and international confidence that the material is properly accounted for and emplaced in WIPP.”

      Plutonium disposal beyond dilute and dispose.

    •  Over the past three years, WIPP and the nearby area have become ground zero for several storage and disposal plans for the bulk of civilian and military radioactive wastes. In addition to trans-uranic wastes set for WIPP and plutonium related to weapons production, the Energy Department seeks to dispose of six tons of fuel-grade plutonium from its research and development program, sludge from 15 of Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste tanks, trans-uranic waste generated from the production of new plutonium pits, and other radioactive waste.
    • Even after the Energy Department recently recalculated its excess plutonium and other radioactive wastes, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in the total volume to be sent to WIPP, the federal statutory limit set in the Land Withdrawal Act, which authorized the opening of WIPP, will be exceeded by these planned disposal efforts. Congress would have to amend the law to expand the volume, set for WIPP at 175,564 cubic feet, by as much as than 50 percent to accommodate all the waste. Moreover, it appears that new plutonium pit production is projected to generate huge amounts more waste.Lurking in the shadows, 71 miles from the WIPP, sits an Energy Department effort to dispose of as much as 500,000 gallons of grouted wastes from Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste tanks at the Waste Control Specialists landfill in Andrews County Texas.
    • That firm is also seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish centralized interim storage of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power reactor fleet. So, too, is the Holtec Corporation with a proposed spent nuclear fuel storage site 16 miles from WIPP in Lea County, New Mexico.If these interim storage efforts succeed, by mid-century up to 10,000 spent fuel cannisters containing nearly the entire US commercial spent nuclear fuel inventory will be transported across the country for storage near WIPP. They may sit there for more than 100 years. (See sidebar: “The long-term problem of “peaceful” plutonium.) If these plans are realized, WIPP and the nearby area will have become the recipients of an enormous, decades-long, radioactive-waste-transport funnel directing the bulk of the nation’s commercial and military radioactive detritus to New Mexico and far West Texas………

March 9, 2021 - Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, USA

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