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March 12, 2014

Bulletin #187 excerpt: MOX dying?

3.   MOX is probably dying; long live direct geological disposal of surplus plutonium, including at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) or in boreholes

In a welcome development that has been years in the making, the Administration proposes to put the (two-thirds built) $8 B Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) construction at the Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, South Carolina, on “cold standby,” and with it the circa $30 B Mixed Oxide (MOX) plutonium disposal program, of which MFFF is the central, indispensable facility.  The mostly-finished $414 M Waste Solidification Building (WSB), which is or was to receive waste from MFFF, was placed on cold standby late last year.  The Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF), which was to process pits into plutonium feedstock for MFFF, was previously canceled in February of 2012 after the expenditure of several hundred million dollars on various failed designs; NNSA realized the facility was not actually needed to process pits. 

Despite present vociferous objections from the South Carolina delegation, the MOX program is now likely to be terminated.  At least some of the future appropriations previously planned for the MOX program would in that case be available to cover cost overruns elsewhere in NNSA, i.e. in warhead programs and construction. 

Should the MOX program die – and it certainly should, for any number of reasons, as we have been saying since the program was a twinkle in the eye of former Rep. Spratt – something else will need to be done with 43.3 metric tons (MT) of plutonium currently declared surplus, as well as the future declarations which need to follow.  This 43.3 MT is mostly stored at the Pantex plant near Amarillo and at SRS.  (See Table 3, p. 14 in "The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009,” Jun 26, 2012).  As some of our colleagues (finally) said in 2012, it’s “time to bury plutonium” (“Nuclear proliferation: Time to bury plutonium,” Nature 485, pp. 167–168).

There is no rush to bury it, provided it remains safely guarded.  The marginal cost of protecting this particular plutonium – over and above the cost of protecting non-surplus plutonium, weapons, and high-level waste – at these sites is in general very low.  Sooner or later it must be disposed, however, and burial, with various degrees of preprocessing, is now the prime path.  Multiple disposal alternatives are theoretically possible.  Russian agreement is necessary.    

Some of these alternatives would take this additional plutonium to WIPP.  WIPP, as many of you know, is authorized to dispose of transuranic waste from the U.S. nuclear weapons program – which this would be.  Besides WIPP, another disposal scenario under active consideration would use deep boreholes, a technology that has matured greatly in the past two decades. 

WIPP suffered two significant accidents in February, shutting down disposal operations for an indeterminate time.  Seventeen workers have been contaminated.  Subterranean cleanup of salt tunnels could be slow, and it is clear that new equipment and procedures are needed.  But we do not think these travails are in any way fatal to WIPP’s important mission. 

We at the Study Group have always judged MOX to be an unsound disposition pathway and have lobbied for its termination.  Now, all reasonable disposal paths should be investigated and vetted through open, public processes, and of course discussed with Russia.  Some of these options involve the WIPP site, which looks to us like a very good place to put more plutonium waste, with or without various means of immobilization.  

Essentially, twenty years and billions of dollars have been wasted on MOX, for the usual reasons.  Arms control and “nuclear security” NGOs and their funders, closely allied with the Clinton Administration, played a central role in this waste and delay.  To their credit, other NGOs argued strenuously, and made compelling cases, that this disposition pathway was grossly cost-ineffective and had other major flaws.  It hasn’t worked out, and it won’t. 

Among the options we believe worthy of renewed consideration is the direct disposal of non-immobilized plutonium, including demilitarized pits, at WIPP.  In the case of pits, these could be shipped directly from Pantex, where demilitarization could take place without opening the pits.  There are a couple of dozen ways (physical, chemical, and mechanical) to ensure a pit could never again be used in a warhead.  One example is to place pits in malleable, sealed metal envelopes and crush them, with admixed chemicals to further decrease the likelihood of inadvertent criticality and/or to greatly reduce the ease of future use. 

Approaches involving immobilization in an inert matrix (e.g. glass, ceramic) are possible as well, although they would cost billions of dollars and be subject to all the risks we have seen in large NNSA nuclear construction projects (cf. “Nuclear Waste: Washington has ignored a cheaper way to dispose of its plutonium — until now,” Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith, Center for Public Integrity, June 27, 2014.) 

This is not the place or time to discuss these complex issues at length.  We wanted you, our members, to understand that the Los Alamos Study Group supports the study of disposal of much more plutonium at WIPP than is currently envisioned, including forms of direct disposal that do not involve expensive and risky immobilization and which minimize transportation as well.  It may be that lack of immobilization would be a show-stopper for Russia, but we don’t know that. 

We believe WIPP is geologically inappropriate for spent nuclear fuel or high-level waste, or for any radioactive waste which is thermally hot.  But WIPP already has tons of plutonium emplaced, with more tons on the way, and we do not see why increasing the mass of plutonium disposed should be an inherently bad thing from any perspective.

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