Congressional Panel Blocks Industry Role in Plutonium-Disposal Decision

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) speaks during a Washington news conference in 2011. Garamendi tried to add provisions to a defense bill this week that would require the Energy Department to involve industry in deciding how to dispose of excess plutonium.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
May 21, 2014, 10:43 a.m.

The Re­pub­lic­an-led House Rules Com­mit­tee has blocked an ef­fort by some House Demo­crats to have the En­ergy De­part­ment in­volve the private sec­tor in its de­cision on how to dis­pose bomb-grade plutoni­um leftover from the Cold War.

The En­ergy De­part­ment re­cently de­cided to put con­struc­tion of a con­tro­ver­sial fa­cil­ity that would con­vert the plutoni­um in­to nuc­le­ar fuel on hold while it con­siders wheth­er to pur­sue oth­er — pos­sibly cheap­er — ways of dis­pos­ing the ma­ter­i­al.

The de­part­ment earli­er this month re­leased a pre­lim­in­ary study of op­tions, and told law­makers it would take an ad­di­tion­al 18 months to make a de­cision.

The United States is re­quired to dis­pose of the ex­cess plutoni­um as part of an agree­ment with Rus­sia, but law­makers have raised con­cerns about the cost of us­ing the fuel-con­ver­sion plan to do so. Mean­while, act­iv­ists have raised con­cerns the strategy could ac­tu­ally in­crease pro­lif­er­a­tion risks.

Rep­res­ent­at­ive John Gara­mendi (D-Cal­if.), with sup­port from sev­en oth­er House Demo­crats, offered the meas­ure as an amend­ment to the fisc­al 2015 de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill. It would have re­quired the de­part­ment to so­li­cit pro­pos­als from con­tract­ors on how they might dis­pose of the plutoni­um, should the gov­ern­ment de­cide to scrap the mixed-ox­ide fuel-con­ver­sion plan.

Speak­ing to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire on Tues­day, Gara­mendi said the goal of the amend­ment was to ac­cel­er­ate the de­part­ment’s de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess. The meas­ure also was “to in­volve those com­pan­ies and en­tit­ies that ac­tu­ally know how to do this stuff and have done and could do it,” he said.

“It’s one thing to have the [de­part­ment’s semi­autonom­ous Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion] spend a lot of time try­ing to sort out what they want to do, and they don’t have a good track re­cord,” Gara­mendi said. “But there are com­pan­ies and en­tit­ies that could do this, and I want them to make a form­al present­a­tion on how they would do it and what it would cost.”

Among the ques­tions Gara­mendi would want con­tract­ors to an­swer is wheth­er they would use the par­tially built MOX fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina to dis­pose of the plutoni­um in an­oth­er way, “and if not, where would you do it and how would you do it and so forth. Oth­er­wise, the NNSA is go­ing to spend 18 months ba­sic­ally go­ing around in circles, and at the end of the time they will be no fur­ther ahead than they are now.”

Gara­mendi said he thought a de­cision could be made “much faster” than in the 18 months the de­part­ment pre­dicted. He said he ex­pec­ted the de­part­ment could give con­tract­ors 60 days to sub­mit ini­tial pro­pos­als, fol­lowed by an ad­di­tion­al six months to ob­tained more de­tailed plans from those it deems qual­i­fied.

Oth­er law­makers also are look­ing to ac­cel­er­ate vari­ous as­pects of the de­part­ment’s re­view of the plutoni­um-dis­pos­i­tion pro­ject. Say­ing they doubted En­ergy’s es­tim­ates for how much it would cost to carry on with the MOX op­tion, Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors earli­er this month asked de­part­ment of­fi­cials to “re-look at the MOX num­bers [and sug­gest] po­ten­tial changes that can be made to “¦ keep the price down.”

At press time, it was un­clear wheth­er En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cials had com­plied with that re­quest.

A spokes­man for Sen­at­or Di­anne Fein­stein (D-Cal­if.), who chairs the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations En­ergy and Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment Sub­com­mit­tee, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. An En­ergy De­part­ment spokes­wo­man also could not be reached by press time.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, mean­while, is ob­ject­ing to lan­guage already in the House de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that would re­quire the de­part­ment to con­tin­ue con­struc­tion on the MOX fa­cil­ity, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment of ad­min­is­tra­tion policy the White House is­sued this week.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to move the fa­cil­ity in­to cold standby in [fisc­al 2015] while it con­tin­ues to ex­plore more cost-ef­fect­ive al­tern­at­ives will save tax­pay­ers bil­lions of dol­lars, while still main­tain­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to dis­pos­ing of un­needed plutoni­um,” the state­ment said.

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