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America’s complicated problem of disposing of tons of plutonium bomb cores, as the government to spend $1.7 billion on more plutonium bomb cores

The nuclear security agency’s draft statement comes as the Senate approved a military spending bill that seeks to funnel $1.7 billion to the lab’s pit operations, an unprecedented funding amount.

Weehler said the government should hold off on producing pits, which will generate more waste, until it has figured out a safe and effective way to dispose of the radioactive material it already has.

LANL would aid in diluting plutonium in controversial disposal plan

 https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/lanl-would-aid-in-diluting-plutonium-in-controversial-disposal-plan/article_e6cb6380-6d26-11ed-9a6c-731a070c9235.html By Scott Wyland swyland@sfnewmexican.com, Dec 17, 2022

The federal government has released a draft environmental impact statement on its plans to dilute and dispose of surplus plutonium, plans that worry some activists, residents and state officials because the radioactive material would be trucked at least twice through New Mexico, including the southern edge of Santa Fe.

The U.S. Energy Department’s nuclear security agency placed a notice of the 412-page draft in the Federal Register on Friday, providing details on the plutonium disposal it first announced two years ago but had kept mostly silent about.

Agencies want to get rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium bomb cores, or pits, that are left over from the Cold War and being kept at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas.

Plans call for shipping the material to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it would be converted to oxidized powder, then transported to Savannah River Site in South Carolina so crews can add an adulterant to make it unusable for weapons.

From there, it would go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site in Carlsbad. This “downblending” is required because WIPP only takes waste below a certain radioactive level.

The public will have a chance to weigh in, both with written comments and at several public hearings scheduled for early next year.

Critics have spoke out against the plan for more than a year, arguing it puts communities along the trucking routes at risk and should be reconsidered.

Cindy Weehler, who co-chairs the watchdog group 285 ALL, said the environmental review confirms her concerns about the region becoming a hub for material that is more radioactive than the transuranic waste — contaminated gloves, equipment, clothing, soil and other materials — the lab now ships to WIPP.

“The preferred option is still to do this 3,300-hundred-mile road trip and have the two operations occur at two different labs,” Weehler said.

The impact statement offers possible alternatives, such as doing all the downblending at the lab or Savannah River to reduce transportation, but it makes clear the original plan is the preferred method.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has been quiet about the dilute-and-dispose plans, other than to acknowledge an environmental impact statement was underway.

This silence has frustrated residents, state and local officials and community advocates like Weehler.

If all the downblending is done at the lab, it would keep the plutonium from being hauled through a dozen states, so that would be better for many neighborhoods across the country, Weehler said.

However, dangerous radioactive substances would still go through Los Alamos and Santa Fe counties twice, she said.

Whether the oxidized powder leaves the lab in pure form or is adulterated, it would be hazardous to breathe in if the containers were breached in an accident, she said.

The draft statement said the powder would go into a steel canister, which would be placed into a reinforced 55-gallon drum known as a “criticality control container.” As many as 14 control containers can be put into a heavily fortified Trupact shipping container.

The lab has an operation known as ARIES for oxidizing plutonium on a small scale. Boosting the quantity would require installing more glove boxes — the sealed compartments that allow workers to handle radioactive materials — and other equipment to the plutonium facility, the statement said. The additions would expand the facility to 6,800 feet from 5,200 feet.

Structures would have to be built to accommodate the work, including a logistical support center, an office building, a warehouse, a security portal and a weather enclosure for the plutonium facility’s loading dock, the statement says.

The idea of doing away with surplus plutonium began after the Cold War. In 2000, the U.S. and Russia agreed to each eliminate 34 metric tons of the plutonium so it could no longer be used in nuclear weapons.

Russia reportedly withdrew from the pact later, but the U.S. decided to stick with its commitment.

The Energy Department originally sought to build a Savannah River facility that could turn Cold War plutonium into a mixed oxide fuel for commercial nuclear plants. But after billions of dollars in cost overruns and years of delays, the Trump administration scrapped the project in 2018 and decided to go with diluting and disposing of the waste.

One nuclear waste watchdog questioned why the leftover pits must be removed from Pantex at all.

That facility should be able to continue storing the plutonium safely, just as it has since the 1990s, said Don Hancock, director of nuclear waste safety for the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.

“If it’s not safe to be at Pantex, then that raises some severe questions about the safety of the Pantex plant for its assembly and disassembly mission” for nuclear weapons, Hancock said.

Hancock said he opposes the government using WIPP as the sole disposal site for the diluted plutonium and other nuclear waste.

The nuclear security agency’s draft statement comes as the Senate approved a military spending bill that seeks to funnel $1.7 billion to the lab’s pit operations, an unprecedented funding amount.

Weehler said the government should hold off on producing pits, which will generate more waste, until it has figured out a safe and effective way to dispose of the radioactive material it already has.

“This is just a commonsense thing,” she said. “We have the weaponry we need.”

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December 19, 2022 - Posted by | - plutonium, Reference, USA

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