Plutonium-Facility Construction to Proceed This Year, Despite Mothball Plans

Global Security Newswire Staff
April 30, 2014, 10:43 a.m.

The En­ergy De­part­ment on Tues­day said con­struc­tion of a mixed-ox­ide plant will con­tin­ue for now, though the in­ten­tion is to even­tu­ally ax the pro­ject.

“We will con­tin­ue with con­struc­tion activ­it­ies through [fisc­al] 2014, re­tain­ing the key nuc­le­ar en­gin­eers and oth­er highly skilled work­ers that will be needed re­gard­less of the path for­ward,” Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion spokes­man Josh Mc­Co­naha said in a state­ment to the As­so­ci­ated Press.

The En­ergy De­part­ment in its fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al said it planned to shut down work on the par­tially con­struc­ted MOX fuel fab­ric­a­tion fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina due to the pro­ject’s high cost. That an­nounce­ment was met by an out­cry from the state of South Car­o­lina, which is su­ing to keep the pro­ject go­ing.

The de­part­ment on Tues­day said it would not con­tin­ue con­struc­tion of the fuel fab­ric­a­tion fa­cil­ity past Sept. 30 — the end of the cur­rent fisc­al year — un­less it re­ceives a pledge from Con­gress that fur­ther fund­ing for build­ing work would be ap­proved to the tune of $500 mil­lion to $600 mil­lion an­nu­ally un­til 2027, the New York Times re­por­ted.

The fa­cil­ity was in­ten­ded to dis­pose of a large amount of sur­plus weapons-grade plutoni­um that the United States agreed to elim­in­ate un­der a bind­ing non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ac­cord with Rus­sia.

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion on Tues­day re­leased a study in­to al­tern­at­ives for dis­pos­ing of the ex­cess plutoni­um. The re­port fo­cused on four al­tern­at­ive op­tions: ir­ra­di­at­ing the plutoni­um in a fast re­act­or that would need to be built; im­mob­il­iz­a­tion; down-blend­ing and stor­age at an ex­ist­ing un­der­ground nuc­le­ar-waste dump in New Mex­ico; and deep bore­hole dis­pos­al. The lat­ter three op­tions would all re­quire a sup­ple­ment­al agree­ment to be worked out with Rus­sia.

Down-blend­ing the plutoni­um with in­ert ma­ter­i­als and stor­ing it at the Waste Isol­a­tion Pi­lot Plant offered the smal­lest pro­jec­ted price tag at $8.8 bil­lion.

Ed­win Ly­man, a seni­or sci­ent­ist with the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, in a Tues­day ana­lys­is said the down-blend­ing op­tion was the best al­tern­at­ive, due to its com­par­at­ively low cost and tech­nic­al risk.

The WIPP fa­cil­ity, however, is not presently ac­cept­ing new ship­ments of ra­dio­act­ive waste, due to an ac­ci­dent earli­er this year that caused the re­lease of some ra­dio­act­ive ele­ments.

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