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"Forget the Rest" blog



Changing nuclear landscape alters WIPP’s role

Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2016 10:45 pm | Updated: 9:23 pm, Sun Apr 10, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

Obama & Japan PM AbeOn April 1, President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, right, announced that ‘critical’ highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium had been removed from the Fast Critical Assembly nuclear reactor research facility in Japan and shipped to the U.S. The waste was sent to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli confirmed last week that the plutonium ultimately will be placed at WIPP.

When the salt bed trenches of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were mined on the outskirts of Carlsbad in the mid-1980s, Congress dictated specific guidelines for what could be held within its chambers. Only low-level transuranic waste — rags, tools and even soil that had been contaminated with potent radiation through the creation and testing of nuclear weapons in the U.S. — could fill the 6.2 million-cubic-foot cavern more than 2,000 feet below ground.

Even within these limited parameters, finally approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998, it took WIPP 20 years to open. When the first waste-bearing truck drove from Los Alamos to Carlsbad the following year, two women sat on the pavement and a man parked his car in the middle of the road, hoping to prevent its passage. Others waved American flags in support.

But in the 17 years since the facility opened, the nation’s nuclear landscape has changed. WIPP remains the world’s only underground geological repository for nuclear waste, and a confluence of budget constraints, geopolitical issues, the threat of terrorists obtaining nuclear materials and other concerns have led many to consider whether WIPP’s mission should be expanded to include not only higher levels of waste from the U.S. but also waste from around the world. Plans are already in motion to accept plutonium from Japan.

The U.S. now has 61.5 metric tons of plutonium that require a path to disposal — a path that increasingly points to WIPP, despite vulnerabilities exposed by an underground truck fire at the plant in 2014 and an unrelated radiation leak that followed days later, shutting down the plant for the past two years. Officials say it might reopen by the year’s end.

In late March, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that more than 6 tons of plutonium would be diluted with a blend of chemical compounds called oxides — a process known as down-blending — at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and would then be shipped to New Mexico. A portion of that plutonium — just under 1 metric ton, or 2,000 pounds — from “foreign sources” could be included in the shipment, the agency said.

The Department of Energy then announced a $6 billion contract spanning a 10-year period for the Savannah River Site to prepare and package the waste. And on April 1, President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that “critical” highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium had been removed from the Fast Critical Assembly nuclear reactor research facility in Japan and shipped to the U.S.

Despite objections from the state of South Carolina, the plutonium from Japan was sent to the Savannah River Site. NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli confirmed to The New Mexican last week that the plutonium ultimately will be placed at WIPP.

WIPP originally was intended to be the nation’s first deep-underground nuclear repository — not the only such facility in the U.S. or in the world. A high-level waste storage site planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada was abandoned in 2011 following extensive public and political outcry in the state. No other sites have been designated as nuclear repositories since.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration set a goal in 2009 “to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials” worldwide by 2013, and while that deadline has gone unmet, the president has remained a strong proponent of a “global zero” campaign to eliminate the spread of nuclear weapons. Part of this mission rests on an agreement to secure or dispose of all vulnerable nuclear materials.

Critics say storing plutonium from Japan at WIPP would directly violate the laws that govern the underground repository and could fundamentally reshape the facility’s mission — which stipulated storing only transuranic waste from U.S. defense projects. Others say that because the plutonium will be heavily diluted, it will meet WIPP’s criteria.

Since WIPP opened its doors, the original scope of its mission has slowly shifted. Exceptions have been made to allow more than 3 tons of plutonium from the Savannah River Site and the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado to be secured in the salt caverns below Carlsbad — including classified molds that shaped plutonium pits used to trigger nuclear bombs.

The plant’s mission also included a pledge to “open clean and stay clean,” but a runaway reaction from an improperly packaged waste drum from Los Alamos in 2014 caused a radiation leak that escaped the cavern, contaminating the air above ground and breaking that promise.

Meanwhile, the plant is still pegged to take waste waiting at national laboratories, as well as new waste the labs create. The U.S. Department of Energy’s budget for the coming year proposes funding to enhance the nation’s nuclear stockpile and ramp up plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory — work certain to contribute to the waste stream.

Todd Shrader, Carlsbad Field Office manager for the Department of Energy, addressed the plan to bring plutonium to New Mexico during a WIPP public forum Thursday night.

“As with all waste that comes here, it has to meet our waste acceptance criteria and the hazardous waste permit,” he said. “In our mind, it is frankly the same.”

He said employees are eager to get back to work, and the repository is still on target to reopen by mid-December.

Shrader and the Department of Energy say that once the plutonium has been down-blended, it will be a form of waste that meets the criteria for storage at WIPP — whether the waste comes from Japan or Washington.

“WIPP’s function is the disposal of radioactive materials generated from the department’s defense work,” an Energy Department spokesman said Friday when asked about the legality of storing plutonium from Japan at WIPP. “NNSA’s efforts to retrieve plutonium from places where it is insecure, thereby ensuring it will not be used in nuclear weapons, is an important part of that work.”

This was affirmed in the joint statement April 1 by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe, who said the shipment from Japan to South Carolina “will help prevent unauthorized actors, criminals or terrorists from acquiring such materials.”

The announcement came at the end of a Nuclear Security Summit late last month in Washington, D.C. — attended by more than 50 world leaders — that emphasized the Islamic State’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend.

Facilities like the reactor in Japan, experts say, contain relatively small amounts of nuclear materials that are most vulnerable to theft and security breaches. By consolidating the material at more secure sites, they said, nations can reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. France and Britain are both holding more than 15 tons of Japan’s plutonium for this reason, with contracts to reprocess the material into fuel.

“The overall calculus within the U.S. government, since U.S. [plutonium] stocks are already quite large, is that the impacts [of foreign plutonium] are quite small,” said William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the former deputy administrator of the Office of Defense Nuclear Proliferation at the NNSA.

“If terrorists got their hands on even those small amounts, there would be a risk they could turn it into a weapon they could detonate,” Tobey said, citing terrorist organizations in Japan, Chechnya, Belgium and Arab nations that already have tried to seize nuclear materials or have shown interest in doing so.

Since 1994, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative has eliminated or removed 5,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough to make 200 nuclear bombs. As part of this program, the U.S. set an objective to remove 1,431 kilograms of “high risk, vulnerable” uranium and plutonium by 2022, according to a 2014 NNSA report on the initiative.

But Tobey said progress has been slow, and nuclear security has remained in “stasis.” Despite the elimination of weapons-grade material from 30 of 57 countries in recent years, the task of securing nuclear material internationally remains tenuous, he said, and the threat of nuclear terrorism has spiked since 2014 with the rise of the Islamic State.

He also said that plutonium disposal through a nuclear reactor fuel program or storage at WIPP has not been thoroughly studied to show which path — if either of them — is the clear route forward in getting rid of such sensitive materials.

“I worry that we might be trying to jump off of one horse before we are sure that the other horse will be better and faster,” he said.

He said spending money to solve the problem is necessary.

“The people who fought World War II bore significant burdens, but they realized they had a responsibility to do that,” Tobey said. “My argument is we also have a responsibility to bear some burden for the disposition of plutonium” that resulted from the weapons program at that time. “There is a symmetry,” he said.

Plutonium’s path to WIPP also depends on whether a mixed oxide fuel program — which would convert it into fuel for nuclear reactors — will receive funding. Many people view the fuel program as a failure.

For over a decade, the bulk of the United States’ plutonium was set to be turned into nuclear reactor fuel at a mixed oxide, or MOX, facility under construction in South Carolina. As part of a nuclear security deal signed between the U.S. and Russia in 2000, each country agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium by turning it into fuel.

But 16 years since the MOX program’s inception, the South Carolina facility is still several years and billions of dollars away from completion. And the Department of Energy’s fiscal year 2017 budget would suspend funding for MOX and instead put funds toward a dilute-and-disposal method — with a “geological repository” as the ultimate resting place for the waste.

Congress will have the final say on the budget plan, and the Energy Department confirmed that no decision has been made.

Russia also has yet to sign off on this alternative. On Thursday, Putin said at a media forum in St. Petersburg that he had declined to attend the Nuclear Security Summit this year because the U.S. has failed to live up to its promises to dispose of its weapons-grade plutonium. He said Russia has complied with the agreement.

Citing the exceptional costs of building the MOX facility, the Obama administration has proposed to defund the program over the past several years. Many have questioned the feasibility of keeping the program going and wonder if the resulting fuel would even have a buyer. Congress so far has continued to include funding for the facility in the federal budget, despite objections.

“If you kill the MOX program,” Tobey said, “you leave an uncertain path for that plutonium.”

Largely because of this “uncertain path,” South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, asked the Department of Energy to reroute or stop the recent shipment of plutonium from Japan, saying it puts the state “at risk of becoming a permanent dumping ground for nuclear materials.” She also cited the need to protect the residents and environment in South Carolina.

Haley also is suing the federal government, seeking $1 million for every day since a missed Jan. 1 deadline to have the surplus plutonium removed from her state. The fine has a $100 million cap, which would have been reached Saturday.

But New Mexico’s leaders have a different take on nuclear waste. Gov. Susana Martinez wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in 2015 supporting a bid from Eddy and Lea counties to build an additional facility in Carlsbad capable of storing spent nuclear fuel.

“The residents of this area have a high level of understanding of the nuclear industry and its importance to our national security,” she wrote in the letter.

The Governor’s Office declined to comment on the issue of foreign plutonium at WIPP and instead referred The New Mexican to the state Environment Department, which handles the facility’s hazardous waste permit. A spokeswoman for the department did not respond to requests for comment.

John Heaton, chairman of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, agreed with the governor’s sentiment.

“Nonproliferation should be a major concern of all Americans,” he said. “And putting those materials — no matter where they come from — in a permanent repository where they are not available for terrorist activities … if WIPP can be part of that, and New Mexico can be part of that, I think it is a very noble mission.”

Heaton said the plutonium coming from South Carolina would be heavily diluted — with no risk of a reaction and safe enough to sit on top of the drum containing it.

“It is what WIPP was designed to do,” he said.

He also said WIPP is far from running out of space. Under the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which governs how the land can be used, the salt caverns could be mined further to hold more waste.

“There is no limit to the amount we can mine,” he said.

But Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a nuclear safety watchdog group, said more environmental assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act need to be conducted to assess WIPP’s capacity or ability to handle additional plutonium.

“There is more of that waste in existence than there is room at WIPP,” Hancock said. “Insofar as they want to bring in foreign plutonium, they have to get the law changed.”

He said Japan’s civilian plutonium would be in direct violation of the Land Withdrawal Act’s stipulation that the waste stored at WIPP come from U.S. defense activities.

The Land Withdrawal Act states: “The Secretary shall not transport high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel to WIPP or emplace or dispose of such waste or fuel at WIPP.”

“Geological repositories kind of win by default. If the decision is to put it in the ground, then it could be done someplace else,” Hancock said.

“We the public were always told, ‘Oh no, none of this prohibited materials — ignitable, reactive, potential explodable materials — will ever come to WIPP. We are not allowed to ship those ignitable, reactive [materials]. We have lots of safeguards so that will never happen,’ ” Hancock said, adding, that has been proven wrong.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement that the future of MOX and what that will mean for New Mexico are questions that should be rigorously considered by Congress. He said it is likely “this debate will continue into the next administration.”

“My understanding is that the amount of defense waste in South Carolina likely would require an expansion at WIPP and a change in its total radiation limits, which are set by law,” he said. “And that is not a small issue to address.”

Before the diluted plutonium in South Carolina can be transported to WIPP, he said, an environmental assessment, public comment and an agreement from the state of New Mexico should occur.

Many “ifs” exist regarding the safety of the waste and the remaining capacity at WIPP, he said. If the waste is transported, he said, New Mexico should be compensated and workers trained to deal with a radiological emergency.

“We shouldn’t talk about new missions for WIPP until it’s open,” he said. “And until we know that it will be able to safely complete its current mission.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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