NNSA Sets Spring 2014 as Target For Plutonium-Disposition Decision

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 9, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON – The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion has made spring of 2014 the tar­get for com­plet­ing an as­sess­ment of its op­tions for dis­pos­ing sur­plus weapons-grade plutoni­um — a move ob­serv­ers say sug­gests the con­struc­tion slow­down at the agency’s con­tro­ver­sial re­pro­cessing fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina could last an­oth­er year.

The agency an­nounced the con­struc­tion slow­down of the mixed-ox­ide fuel fab­ric­a­tion fa­cil­ity at its Sa­van­nah River site in April 2013, as part of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rol­lout of its fisc­al 2014 budget pro­pos­al. The fa­cil­ity is meant to dis­pose of weapons-grade ma­ter­i­als by con­vert­ing them in­to fuel for power plants, but a series of delays and cost over­runs as­so­ci­ated with the pro­ject promp­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­con­sider wheth­er there are more ef­fi­cient dis­pos­al op­tions.

Anne Har­ring­ton, deputy NNSA ad­min­is­trat­or for de­fense nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in Au­gust that the agency would not re­lease an an­ti­cip­ated sup­ple­ment­al en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment re­gard­ing plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion un­til after it com­pleted the as­sess­ment of its op­tions. At the time, however, Har­ring­ton did not in­dic­ate how long that pro­cess would take. The en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment had pre­vi­ously been sched­ule for re­lease earli­er this year.

A no­tice the agency made pub­lic Oct. 4 ex­tends the con­tract for work on the doc­u­ment un­til Septem­ber 2014. The no­tice, dated Sept. 5, 2013, says the new tar­get date for is­su­ing the fi­nal en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment is April 30, 2013. NNSA con­tract­ing of­ficer Ariane Kam­in­sky told GSN on Wed­nes­day that this was due to a ty­po­graph­ic­al er­ror, and that the real tar­get was to be April 30, 2014. Kam­in­sky said the agency was work­ing to re­vise the no­tice, but de­clined to an­swer ques­tions re­gard­ing wheth­er there would be oth­er changes to the doc­u­ment.

The no­tice cites the on­go­ing as­sess­ment of plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion op­tions as a reas­on for the delay in is­su­ing the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment. It says the com­pleted as­sess­ment is not due un­til mid-fisc­al 2014, or spring of the cal­en­dar year.

Tom Cle­m­ents, of the watch­dog group Friends of the Earth, said the new sched­ule sug­gests the ad­min­is­tra­tion might not an­nounce a de­cision on how to move for­ward with plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion un­til after it rolls out its fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al. Cle­m­ents, a long-time op­pon­ent of the MOX pro­ject, noted the ad­min­is­tra­tion typ­ic­ally re­leases its budget in late winter or early spring. When it re­leased the fisc­al 2014 pro­pos­al in early April of this year, it was con­sidered un­usu­ally late.

If in fact the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­leases its fisc­al 2015 budget pro­pos­al be­fore the plutoni­um-dis­pos­i­tion as­sess­ment, the budget pro­pos­al would likely in­clude re­duced fund­ing levels for the MOX pro­ject sim­il­ar to the fisc­al 2014 pro­pos­al, Cle­m­ents said. As a res­ult of the new as­sess­ment of op­tions and the con­struc­tion slow­down, the fisc­al 2014 budget called for spend­ing $200 mil­lion less than the pri­or year.

Spokespeople for the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Shaw Areva MOX ser­vices, the com­pany do­ing the con­struc­tion work, could not be reached for com­ment by press time.

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