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Diluted plutonium disposed of at Carlsbad nuclear waste site as program draws controversy

“DOE decided to do this before they did any of the analysis,” Hancock said. “All these documents are to give legal cover and justify decisions already made.”

Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

Federal nuclear waste officials announced a shipment of diluted surplus, weapons-grade plutonium was disposed of using a repository near Carlsbad last month, after it was sent to New Mexico from South Carolina, amid criticism from nuclear watchdog groups in the state.

The shipment contained plutonium diluted using a process known as “downblending” that lowered its radioactivity to meet requirements at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where the U.S. Department of Energy disposes of transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste in an underground salt deposit.

It was brought to WIPP from the DOE’s Savannah River Site, a laboratory where the federal government develops nuclear weapons.

After the downblending, the waste meets the definition of TRU waste, read an announcement from the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and can be legally disposed of at WIPP.

Disposal at WIPP was in response to a 2020 agreement between the DOE and State of South Carolina that called for the removal of 9.5 metric tons (MT) of plutonium waste from the state, reached after years of negotiations and litigation.

The waste was initially brought to Savannah River to be irradiated at a mixed-oxide (MOX) facility, converting the nuclear waste into fuel…………………………………………………………

The initial shipment was announced as the DOE was underway with a public comment period on using the same “dilute and dispose” method for 34 metric tons (MT) of plutonium waste, most of which is at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas.

But this would entail shipping waste from Pantex to Los Alamos, then to Savannah River Site for final packaging before going to WIPP, meaning the waste would cross through New Mexico three times.

Opponents of this proposal in New Mexico feared the repeated trips through their state would increase the risk of exposing their communities to radiation.

Critics oppose use of New Mexico site to dispose of plutonium

Don Hancock, nuclear waste program manager at Albuquerque watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said the group and others in the state opposed the project and its use of WIPP.

He said DOE’s practice of seeking approval for separate segments of the plutonium waste, rather than for all of the waste at once was intended to protect decisions already made without public input.

“DOE decided to do this before they did any of the analysis,” Hancock said. “All these documents are to give legal cover and justify decisions already made.”…………………………………………

Hancock argued using WIPP as the disposal site for the plutonium, even after its diluted to meet the requirements of TRU waste, marked an undue expansion of WIPP’s mission beyond what the people of New Mexico agreed to when the facility was sited in their state.

“We don’t oppose geologic disposal. We don’t think WIPP is the right place,” he said. “WIPP has a limited mission. It was never intended for surplus plutonium. It’s already been decided. The public should be outraged.”


January 22, 2023 - Posted by | - plutonium, USA

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