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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