October 24, 2019 - 11:06 AM EDT
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CORRECTION: Plan for plutonium disposal has holes, GAO finds

Oct. 24-- Oct. 24--Correction appended

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report Wednesday that raised concerns about parts of the Department of Energy's plan to dilute and dispose of surplus plutonium at weapons facilities, citing the still-developing plans at Los Alamos National Laboratory to increase production of nuclear weapon cores and issues with shipping nuclear material out of state.

Federal officials say they are taking action to increase plutonium storage at Los Alamos and reduce the amount of the material held in South Carolina, which has filed multiple lawsuits against the Department of Energy.

The GAO's 39-page report examines the 2018 plan developed by the National Nuclear Security Administration -- a division of the Department of Energy that oversees U.S. nuclear programs -- to dispose of 34 metric tons, or nearly 75,000 pounds, of weapons-grade plutonium.

A Los Alamos lab spokesman directed questions about the report to the Department of Energy, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The plan said plutonium, much of it in the form of "pits," or nuclear weapons triggers, will be shipped to Los Alamos and oxidized, which involves converting the material into a powder form, and then shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to be diluted in preparation for permanent disposal at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

WIPP, the nation's only permanent repository for nuclear waste, was designed for low-level waste. There is no such facility for high-level nuclear waste, though a project in the works would create a long-term storage facility not far from WIPP in Southern New Mexico.

The GAO report does not detail how the plutonium would be shipped across the country or in what amount.

The new plutonium-disposal plan would replace a scrapped facility to convert plutonium oxide into mixed fuel for nuclear power. In February 2016, South Carolina sued the Department of Energy, seeking a court order for the agency to begin removing plutonium and to make payments of $100 million per year until the material was removed. In December 2017, a court ordered the department to remove a metric ton of plutonium by 2020. The NNSA said it would build a facility to dispose of weapons plutonium stored in South Carolina, but it announced in May 2018 it was abandoning the project because of exorbitant costs.

Officials told the Government Accountability Office it was unlikely the agency could ship plutonium oxide to the Savannah River Site until the surplus plutonium was removed. Under the new plan, equal amounts of material would be shipped between Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site so the amount in South Carolina would not increase.

However, NNSA officials said it was not more than a conceptual plan. According to the report, agency officials said "establishing a firm long-term plutonium oxide production plan now would be premature," and said they would use the next few years to balance plutonium oxide production, pit production and shipment.

In November 2018, the NNSA announced a future warhead program requiring the development of the grapefruit-sized plutonium "pits." Los Alamos announced $5 billion in construction for new buildings and infrastructure, much of which would support the production project.

The GAO report said that during pit production, Los Alamos "would sort plutonium metal in the secure storage prior to the metal being formed into pits, then store the manufactured pits in the secure space," until they could be shipped to the Pantex Plant, near Amarillo, Texas, for placement in reserve or assembled into nuclear weapons.

In February, according to the report, NNSA officials said the Los Alamos plutonium facility's high-security storage space was "already near full capacity and that pit production may demand storage space that [the agency] had planned to use for plutonium oxide production."

The report noted the building that would be used for pit production, plutonium oxide conversion and storage was built before 1970. LANL reported concerns that increased operations there would place "demands on the aging facility that could lead to more frequent maintenance outages."

Greg Mello, executive director for the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based organization that advocates for nuclear disarmament, said he's concerned about using that space for building pits and converting plutonium.

"You can see the tension from the crowding two missions into an aging facility not designed for either one," he said.

Another concern, he said, involves the logistics and methods for transporting the plutonium.

"While transportation is usually safe, there's a lot of it in this plan," he said.

Mello criticized the laboratory and said it needs to publish environmental impact statements and ask for feedback from the community.

"Every other state wants to get rid of plutonium," he said. "We seem to want it, and that's probably not in our self-interest."

This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the Department of Energy's plan for surplus plutonium disposition incorrectly named the amount as 34 megatons. It is 34 metric tons.

Source: Tribune Regional (October 24, 2019 - 11:06 AM EDT)

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