Administration Revises Timeline for Plutonium Disposition Review

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 11, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion is back­ing away from state­ments it made earli­er this month in­dic­at­ing that an as­sess­ment of its op­tions for dis­pos­ing sur­plus weapons-grade plutoni­um would not be com­plete un­til the spring of 2014 — a date ob­serv­ers said could have caused fur­ther con­struc­tion delays at a con­tro­ver­sial re­pro­cessing fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina.

Con­struc­tion of the mixed-ox­ide fuel fab­ric­a­tion fa­cil­ity has been slowed since the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in April that it was re­as­sess­ing its op­tions for dis­pos­ing of the plutoni­um. The MOX fa­cil­ity would con­vert the ma­ter­i­al in­to fuel for nuc­le­ar power plants, but a series of delays and cost over­runs promp­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion to study wheth­er there are more ef­fi­cient op­tions.

A con­tract­ing no­tice the agency made pub­lic on Oct. 4 said it ex­pec­ted the as­sess­ment to be fin­ished in mid-fisc­al 2014, or spring of the cal­en­dar year. Such tim­ing could have meant fund­ing cuts for MOX con­struc­tion would re­main in place an ad­di­tion­al year, giv­en that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­nu­al budget pro­pos­al typ­ic­ally is re­leased earli­er in the year, Tom Cle­m­ents, of the watch­dog group Friends of the Earth told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

However, the ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thursday re­leased a re­vised ver­sion of the no­tice that omits any in­form­a­tion per­tain­ing to when the as­sess­ment will be fin­ished. An En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cial told GSN Fri­day that the pri­or state­ment sug­gest­ing the re­view would not be com­plete un­til mid-fisc­al 2014 was made in er­ror. The of­fi­cial, who was not au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the is­sue and asked not to be named, said the as­sess­ment would likely be com­pleted soon­er, pos­sibly be­fore the end of 2013.

Like the earli­er ver­sion, the re­vised no­tice an­nounces the ex­ten­sion of a con­tract to do work on a sup­ple­ment­al en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment for plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion which ori­gin­ally had been sched­uled for re­lease earli­er this year. Anne Har­ring­ton, deputy NNSA ad­min­is­trat­or for de­fense nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, told GSN in Au­gust that the agency would not re­lease the en­vir­on­ment­al doc­u­ment un­til after it com­pleted the as­sess­ment of dis­pos­al op­tions.

Sim­il­arly, the earli­er ver­sion of the con­tract no­tice re­leased Oct. 4 cited the on­go­ing re­view as one reas­on why work on the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment would con­tin­ue in­to 2014. However, the re­vi­sion is­sued Thursday says the con­tract ex­ten­sion “is not as­so­ci­ated with the De­part­ment’s as­sess­ment of al­tern­at­ive plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion strategies.”

Ac­cord­ing to the un­named En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cial, this lan­guage in the re­vised no­tice is not meant to con­tra­dict Har­ring­ton’s pri­or state­ment. The source ac­know­ledged that the two items are re­lated in the sense that, if the on­go­ing as­sess­ment causes the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pre­ferred op­tion for plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion to change, the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment would have to re­flect that change.

The lan­guage in the re­vised no­tice is in­stead meant to in­dic­ate that the con­tract ex­ten­sion it­self is not dir­ectly de­pend­ent on the as­sess­ment of op­tions, the En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cial said.

The no­tice ex­tends the con­tract for work re­lated to the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment un­til Novem­ber 2014. The state­ment it­self is ex­pec­ted by April 2014, ac­cord­ing to the re­vised no­tice.

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