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More plutonium destined for WIPP?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The Department of Energy (DOE) Savannah River Site in South Carolina is proposing to ship up to six metric tons of surplus plutonium from nuclear bombs to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico.

Before making the decision to ship surplus plutonium to the WIPP, DOE must provide detailed information about the proposal and consider reasonable alternatives in an environmental impact statement. Public meetings will be held in Carlsbad and Santa Fe late August. The draft statement might be published in 2011 and released for public review, comment and hearings.

In the 1990s, DOE completed two environmental impact statements, but neither of them proposed that any of the surplus plutonium would be destined for WIPP. They proposed a two-track solution where the plutonium would be immobilized or made into nuclear reactor fuel.

DOE now plans to supplement those statements in order to reconsider what to do with 13 metric tons of surplus plutonium. DOE is proposing that approximately six metric tons could be prepared for disposal at WIPP and is considering how to handle the other seven metric tons, including through immobilization.

Activists agree that the scope of the new statement must address whether the plutonium will fit into WIPP, which has a capacity for about seven metric tons. Further, it must address why the plutonium should be transported again. Much of the six metric tons was already shipped from the DOE sites at Hanford, Livermore, and Los Alamos to the Savannah River Site.  DOE claims that the waste is similar to that at WIPP. Activists question why the plutonium was not shipped directly to WIPP in the first place. 

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), managed by the Carlsbad Field Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is an underground repository for transuranic radioactive waste, or TRU waste, left over from the production of nuclear weapons. WIPP began operations on March 26, 1999 and is located in the remote Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern New Mexico, about 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad. TRU waste is currently stored at 23 locations nationwide. Over WIPP’s life cycle, it is expected to receive about 37,000 shipments.

Tom Clements, with Friends of the Earth, based in South Carolina, said that they support immobilization. One option in the current statement is to fill small cans with plutonium that is mixed with molten glass and high-level waste. When the small cans are cooled, they are then placed inside a much larger canister that is then filled with the molten high-level waste mixture. He said “For safety, security, non-proliferation and cost reasons, DOE should abandon the option of making surplus plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel and instead vigorously pursue the immobilization option of mixing it back into the high-level waste from which it came.”

Sources: Factsheet WIPP at / CCNS news update 20 August 2010
Contact: Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, 107 Cienega Street,Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.
Tel: +1 505 986-1973

Plutonium in breathable form found near Rocky Flats

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Activists questioning the thoroughness of the cleanup at the old Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver say they have found particles of weapons-grade plutonium in air samples taken near the site. Part of the site is a national wildlife refuge that is slated to open for public recreation.

The federal Department of Energy declared in 2005 that its decontamination of the Rocky Flats facility was complete, after a 10-year effort that cost US$7 billion (although the DOE originally thought the project would take 65 years and US$37 billion). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to allow public recreation at a national wildlife refuge established in 2007 on part of the site.

The samples were collected in April by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, which has criticized the quality of the cleanup and called for increased testing and other safeguards. Plutonium in breathable form was found at two locations near the site of the Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant. Their sampling effort responded to repeated refusals of government agencies to sample surface dust at Rocky Flats for plutonium content. What the citizens found with their unofficial project counters U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service plans to open a big portion of the Rocky Flats site – the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge – to public recreation.

The plutonium contained in a sample collected in open space across the street from the Rocky Flats site was delivered by wind to this location. "The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge should be managed as open space that is closed to the public," Colorado state Rep. Wes McKinley told AOL News. "This is not a good place for our school kids to go on field trips. At the very least, there should be a warning that you may be exposing yourself to plutonium."

“The plutonium found at the open space location was probably deposited there quite recently,“ observed environmentalist LeRoy Moore, who organized the sampling project. “Burrowing animals on the site bring buried plutonium to the surface, and the winds that scour Rocky Flats scatter plutonium particles near and far, with the risk of sending some of it into the lungs of people using Rocky Flats for recreation.”

At least equally significant, according to Moore, is the indoor sample. Hot particles with high concentrations of plutonium were found in dust collected in a crawl space under a house where it had accumulated for 50 years. Specialist Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Data Corp., who did the technical analysis of the samples, pointed out that this plutonium laden dust certainly endangered the health of anyone who spent much time in this crawl space.

Moore thinks that within the contaminated area plutonium-laden dust could be present in any indoor space where dust collects, such as in refrigerator coils, ventilation systems, ceiling fans, etc. “Its presence poses a risk to people who occupy, use or work in these indoor spaces,” he stated. “So far as I know, sampling indoor dust for its possible plutonium content has never been previously done in offsite areas around Rocky Flats.”

Kaltofen pointed out that the plutonium present in the two samples was in the form of very tiny particles. Such particles can be inhaled, ingested or taken into the body through an open wound, such as a child’s scraped knee or elbow. For as long as the plutonium is lodged in the body, it continues to bombard surrounding tissue with radiation. This may result in cancer, harm to the immune system or genetic defects that can be passed on to future generations.

“This small sampling project,” Moore observed, “indicates that Rocky Flats is a local hazard forever.”

Sources: Pressconference RMPJC, 4 August 2010 / AOL News, 4 August.
Contact: LeRoy Moore, PhD, environmentalist and consultant with the Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center,

Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center

Russia: safety problems surplus weapons-grade DU disposition program

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

On April 12, the Russian environmental group Ecodefense released a major new report focused on the use of plutonium as fuel in Russian nuclear reactors. This is the first independent research done during the last decade that exposes the civil plutonium program and its risks for public health and the environment, and comes as the U.S. and Russia prepare to sign an agreement for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from nuclear weapons by using it to generate nuclear power.

The Ecodefense report ('Russian Plutonium Program: Nuclear Waste, Accidents, and Senseless Huge Costs') finds that the cornerstone of Russia’s program -the BN-800 breeder reactor- has been under construction for over 25 years, has cost over US$6 billion, and remains far from completion.

In the framework of the Russian-US disarmament agreement, each country will “dispose” of 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads. Presently, the governments are planning to use the plutonium in the form of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) in nuclear reactors. Russian breeder reactors BN-600 (in operation) and BN-800 (under construction) will be used for this plutonium disposition. But breeder reactors may be used for both burning and breeding plutonium, which offers to the Russian nuclear industry the possibility of actually producing more plutonium rather than net destruction of the element. Later, the MOX fuel may also be used in Russian light-water reactors (VVER-1200 design).

Environmental groups in both Russia and the U.S. are opposed to the use of MOX fuel and instead promote safer, cleaner vitrification technology to permanently dispose of plutonium.

The report describes the nuclear facilities that will be used for the plutonium program in Russia: * the Beloyarsk nuclear plant near Ekaterinburg city, * NIIAR (Scientific and research institute of atomic reactors) in Dimitrovgrad city, * GHK nuclear weapon facility near Krasnoyarsk city, and * SHK nuclear facility near Tomsk city. The report also focuses on issues of safety, accidents, nonproliferation and public opinion. A public policy issue raised in the report is the lack of liability coverage for a nuclear accident in Russia. This is particularly troubling given the more than 1,000,000 people living in very close proximity of the proposed MOX factory near Ekaterinburg.

On January 21, 2010, Russian government approved a program of advanced technologies development worth 128 billion rubles (US$4.3 billion or 3.1 billion euro). Most of the funding will go to breeder reactor development.

Fast breeder reactors operating with MOX fuel are being promoted as "advanced  technology" in Russia. But it is a little known fact that the BN-800 has been under construction for over 25 years and its design, which pre-dates the 1986 Chernobyl accident, does not meet modern safety requirements. According to the Russian nuclear industry, this reactor will cost nearly US$4 billion, but independent estimates suggest that US$6 billion already has been spent and construction will be finished not earlier than 2014 and likely later.

In a detailed financial analysis, the report concludes that the plutonium fuel program is only viable because of US and European subsidy for weapons grade plutonium disposition, but given that it may result in a net increase in plutonium stocks, the Russian program will undermine this goal.

The full report in English is available at

Source: Press release 12 April 2010, Ecodefense! and NIRS
Contact: Ecodefense, Vladimir Sliviak: +7 903 2997584
Email: or: Mary Olson at NIRS, +1-828-252-8409