How much will it cost to destroy stockpiled U.S. weapons plutonium?

Mixing plutonium with an inert material—”downblending” it—and entombing it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) repository near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the cheapest way to dispose of the surplus U.S. fissile material. So says a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The report lists five options for how the U.S. could meet the terms of a 2011 agreement with Russia. Under those terms, the two nations each agreed to permanently get rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium. In its fiscal year 2015 budget request, the Obama administration said that it intends to mothball a half-finished plant being built to transform the U.S. plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors while it explores potentially less costly routes for disposal over the next 12–18 months. The plant’s construction cost, estimated in 2007 at $4.8 billion, has ballooned to $8.7 billion.

The NNSA report estimates that combining the plutonium with materials to inhibit reuse and storing the mixture permanently underground would come to $8.8 billion over the lifetime of the operation. By comparison, the projected lifetime expenditures for converting the plutonium to MOX fuel would be $25.2 billion. The estimates include both capital and operational expenses, plus costs for preparing the plutonium metal. They do not include funds already spent. The downblending option was based on the assumption that the geological repository would be WIPP, the sole U.S. facility licensed for permanent disposal of transuranic wastes. Building an alternate disposal facility would obviously cause the option’s cost to mushroom, the report acknowledges.

The three other plutonium-disposal options considered in the NNSA report are irradiation in fast reactors, estimated to cost $50.4 billion; mixing with nuclear waste and glassification, estimated to cost $28.6 billion; and deep borehole disposal, for which no estimate was prepared. Russia has chosen the fast-reactor route for disposing of its plutonium.

A DOE inspector general’s audit released on May 22 blames the project’s escalating costs and schedule slippages on a combination of an “immature design,” understating the difficulty of installing “various construction commodity items,” and high personnel turnover. When approved for construction in 2007, the MOX plant was expected to be finished in 2016. According to the inspector general’s report, if construction isn’t halted as the administration wants, the plant won’t be completed until 2019.

– edited from Physics Today, July 2014
PeaceMeal Sept/October 2014

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

End of Hanford plutonium shipments in sight

Shipments of weapons-grade plutonium stored at the Hanford nuclear reservation north of Richland, Wash., to the Department of Energy’s nuclear site at Savannah River, S.C., is running ahead of schedule, according to a DOE spokesman. More than half the plutonium already has been shipped and all the weapons plutonium may be transferred by early June, almost four months ahead of schedule. DOE made the decision in 2007 to consolidate the plutonium stored at Hanford, as well as at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, at Savannah River.

During the Cold War, plutonium was produced in Hanford’s nine now-defunct production reactors, extracted from irradiated fuel elements at the PUREX chemical reprocessing plant, made into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP), and then shipped off site for use in nuclear weapons. But at the end of the Cold War, 2,300 canisters of plutonium were left. Each canister, the size of a large coffee can, can hold up to ten pounds of plutonium.

The plutonium has been stored in a vault at the PFP under armed guard. But having weapons-grade material on site increases security costs. The Governmental Accountability Office told Congress in 2007 that, if the canisters of plutonium remain at Hanford, security improvements required after the 9/11 terrorism attacks would cost $831 million through 2018. The heavy security also has complicated plans to tear down buildings at the Plutonium Finishing Plant as part of Hanford cleanup.

The Hanford shipments required the precise fabrication of some1,000 shipping containers to meet nuclear standards. Work is under way to build other containers for several packages of irradiated fuel also stored at the PFP. Shipments of that material to Savannah River should be completed by October. That leaves some irradiated fuel from the shut-down Fast Flux Test Facility and other projects, which will be moved elsewhere in central Hanford to clear the PFP for further demolition.

DOE is required by the Tri-Party Agreement — a legally binding agreement among the DOE, EPA and Washington State — to have the heavily contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant demolished by 2016, and DOE hopes to have it down sooner.

– edited from the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald, Dec. 29, 2008
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2009

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

DOE to ship plutonium off Hanford

The Department of Energy is poised to begin shipping weapons-grade plutonium and unused nuclear fuel off the Hanford nuclear reservation. The plutonium is currently stored in a vault at the Plutonium Finishing Plant in central Hanford. The material will be sent to a DOE site at Savannah River, S.C., clearing the way for the demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant and thereby saving more than $100 million in security upgrades. The upgrades, required under new security standards set after 9/11/2001, have been waived on the condition that the plutonium is shipped off site.

DOE had planned an accelerated cleanup schedule at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where plutonium produced in Hanford reactors was made into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks for use in the fission triggers of thermonuclear weapons. But because of delays in shipping the plutonium from the plant, demolition work slowed in the last two years and some of the funds intended for cleanup of the plant were shifted to radioactive sludge vacuuming and removal at the K Area storage basins.

DOE plans to ship 2,300 canisters of plutonium from Hanford. Each canister, the size of a large coffee can, can hold almost 10 pounds of plutonium, but their weights vary. DOE also plans to ship 700 canisters of plutonium from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in order to consolidate plutonium at Savannah River. In August, DOE began construction at Savannah River of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which will be used to turn some of the surplus plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. DOE also plans to use another existing facility at Savannah River, the H Canyon, and possibly a proposed new, small-scale plutonium vitrification facility there to recycle surplus materials, then prepare waste for disposal at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

DOE expects the nationwide consolidation of plutonium not yet made into nuclear weapons triggers to take about three years. Once the weapons-grade plutonium and unused fuel left over from the Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford are removed from the Plutonium Finishing Plant, heavy security at the plant will be reduced, making cleanup there more efficient. DOE is required to have all the buildings in the complex, many of them heavily contaminated with radioactive material, torn down by 2016.

– edited from the Tri-City (Wash.) Herald, Sept. 6, 2007
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2007

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

NNSA seeks to expand Pu pit production for new warhead

The National Nuclear Security Administration will soon ask for more money to expand plutonium pit production for nuclear warheads at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to NNSA administrator Linton Brooks. LANL has produced a small quantity of pits since 2003, but plans are to expand production to an annual total of 30 or more by 2010.

The pits would be used for a new Reliable Replacement Warhead, for which Congress appropriated $25 million (up from $9.4 million requested by President Bush) for Fiscal Year 2006. The RRW program could produce the first new nuclear weapon manufactured by the U.S. in roughly 15 years. Congress funded plutonium pit production for FY 2006 at the full Bush administration request of $249 million, with the exception that $7.7 million earmarked for a new Modern Pit Facility was deleted.

The RRW program is being touted as a replacement for existing, Cold War-era weapons. According to proponents, a new, more “reliable” warhead would reduce the number of spare nuclear weapons that would have to be maintained, without sacrificing the “robustness,” that is, reliability on the shelf, of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are working to complete separate RRW designs by the middle of next year.

Meanwhile, a Department of Energy task force has recommended in a report that the three DOE weapons laboratories be consolidated as part of a major restructuring of the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said in early September that the recommendation to consolidate the labs would be politically sensitive “with leaders in Congress who have an interest in particular labs.” He said any restructuring “will have to have the blessing of Congress.”

The report calls for the creation of a “consolidated nuclear production center,” to which much of the nuclear material currently at the weapons labs would be moved. The report criticizes the weapons labs — Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories — for consuming two-thirds of the nuclear weapons budget while they “routinely compete with each other and set their own requirements as justification for new facilities and redundant research funding in the fear that one laboratory may become superior.”

The report doesn’t specify how the labs should be consolidated, but concludes that “the status quo is neither technically credible, nor financially sustainable. ... The transformation should begin now.”

 – compiled from The Sunflower and Physics Today
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2005

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Plutonium? It's the pits!

What do we do with 50 metric tons (that's 110,000 pounds) of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons production? That was the question addressed at a July 1 public meeting held in Richland by the Department of Energy (DOE) to help define the scope of a planned Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on its Surplus Plutonium Disposition program.

DOE has already decided to pursue two possible methods for plutonium disposition:

1) immobilization by encapsulation in glass or ceramic highly radioactive waste; and

2) incorporation into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for burnup in commercial nuclear power reactors.

The strategy behind immobilization is to make the plutonium as inaccessible as that in spent reactor fuel by surrounding it with a barrier of high radioactivity.

Two-thirds of the plutonium is in the form of "pits," the spherical plutonium metal cores of nuclear weapons that became surplus when thousands of warheads were dismantled to carry out the START I and START II treaties. Pit material is suitable for use in the manufacture of MOX fuel elements and could also be disposed of by immobilization. The remaining non-pit plutonium consists of scrap and other forms considered suitable only for immobilization.

Disposition of the United States' plutonium is intimately tied up with disposition of Russia's plutonium. At present there is no domestic or international consensus on the single best method for disposition. Indeed, the question — as debated in recent issues of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — is highly controversial. Paradoxically, both sides of the debate base some of their arguments on proliferation concerns.

DOE's dual-track approach follows recommendations in a September 1996 report made by a Bilateral Commission of scientists from the U.S. and Russian academies of science, which critics charge "embodies a surrender to Russia's terms." Russia is opposed to immobilization and is adamant about using the MOX option while major peace and environmental groups in the U.S. oppose it.

Critics of the MOX option say that it will undercut the long-standing U.S. opposition to the reprocessing of spent power reactor fuel and the recycling of extracted plutonium, which could be used in bombs. However, the MOX option embodies the opposite procedure — the use of reactors to embed already separated weapon plutonium in spent fuel. DOE emphasizes that the MOX option would not involve reprocessing and plutonium recycling. The mixed-oxide fuel would be used in a reactor once and then disposed of in much the same way as conventional uranium-oxide fuel. Economics would also deter plutonium recycling, which is much more costly than using abundantly available uranium to make new fuel.

Critics also argue that the MOX option is fraught with a variety of risks that are absent or less severe with immobilization. For example, MOX fuel has never been used in U.S. or Russian power reactors and its operating characteristics are unknown. Disposition could also begin sooner and be accomplished more quickly and cheaply with fewer facilities to safeguard by immobilization alone.

Supporters of the dual-track strategy say the only way to assure that disposition goes forward in Russia is to accommodate its stance. Russia, reflecting lingering suspicions of U.S. intentions, opposes immobilization because it leaves the plutonium as weapon-grade material for possible reclamation and re-use later. They say the only way to dispose of weapon plutonium permanently is to alter it isotopically by burnup in a reactor.

In addition, because they (and we!) spent so much money to produce the excess weapon plutonium, the Russians favor only the one track of using it in power reactor fuel. Despite economic analysis that shows the manufacture and use of MOX fuel would entail a net loss when compared with ordinary fuel, they regard the immobilization option as "throwing the plutonium away."

Another facet of the issue is whether immobilized weapon-grade plutonium is any more accessible and usable for weapons than the existing stores of reactor-grade plutonium. A report by the American Nuclear Society claims that reactor-grade plutonium could not be used reliably in current nuclear weapons without redesign and nuclear testing — now prohibited by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Critics say the argument is without merit. In the past when such minor changes were made in U.S. pit designs, the new modification worked as predicted virtually every time.

There are presently more than 120 metric tons of separated civil plutonium from reprocessed power reactor fuel in storage in Japan, France, Britain, India and Russia. Russia intends to continue indefinitely its current practice of reprocessing plutonium in unsafeguarded plants. Critics consider it absurd to proceed with plutonium disposal as long as newly separated plutonium continues to be produced. They maintain that a disposition program should include a moratorium on Russian reprocessing.

The technical, economic, and political issues to be resolved before either plutonium disposition method can be implemented are substantial. Without a reliable crystal ball to predict what issues will be more time-consuming to resolve or even whether they will be resolved, it seems prudent to continue investigation of both options.

It is expected that the United States will bear most of the cost of Russia's plutonium disposition activities, as we have already done to upgrade the security of its nuclear materials. This should give us greater leverage than we have so far exerted on the direction of the Russian program. A U.S. assistance package should include incentives to Russia to use the immobilization option for some of its excess plutonium. This would provide more timely disposition and should allay the fear about greater accessibility of immobilized U.S. weapon-grade material.

The end product from both disposition methods--either plutonium in canisters of vitrified radioactive waste or spent bundles of irradiated MOX fuel — is destined for permanent burial in a geologic repository. The only U.S. site being investigated as a possible geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste is Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That site is aggressively opposed by activists and the State of Nevada itself. Hanford and another site in the East were dropped from consideration for a repository years ago. The fractured Hanford basalt was shown to be unsuitable; and the technically attractive granite of the eastern site became politically untenable because of intense public opposition.

If the above isn't enough to stymie Solomon, the plutonium disposition problem has a big brother. In addition to the 50 metric tons of plutonium, our excess fissile materials inventory includes another 212 metric tons (466,400 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium — the nuclear explosive in the Hiroshima bomb. Disposition of that material will be dealt with separately and presents similar problems.

Hanford is a candidate site for all of the major operations involved in plutonium disposition: pit disassembly, plutonium conversion and immobilization, and MOX fuel fabrication. The huge Fuels and Materials Examination Facility (FMEF) adjacent to the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at Hanford is capable of accommodating all three operations. FMEF was built in the early 1980s at a cost of $350 million to manufacture MOX fuel for the FFTF and was never used.

Pantex, Savannah River, and Idaho Falls are other DOE sites to be examined in the EIS, which is scheduled for completion in the first months of 1998. After making firm decisions how to proceed, it will take many years — perhaps 20 or 30 — to get the disposition job done.

We have some tough decisions facing us. The stocks of surplus fissile materials pose a serious danger to national and international security because of their suitability for nuclear weapons. The "No Action" alternative — leaving the materials as they are, where they are — is clearly unacceptable. It would represent our failure to face the reality of a problem that has no attractive solutions and won't go away. With a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium is (virtually) forever. It's the pits!

Although there are important agreements that no further work be done at Hanford that would produce additional nuclear waste, there would be a certain rightness — perhaps even redemption — in having Hanford close the circle of the nuclear weapons era by helping dispose of its own product.

- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
PeaceMeal, July/August 1997

New greenbacks to promote ZPG

In a recent column that appeared in the Tri-City Herald, humorist Dave Barry leaked TOP SECRET information that could damage the national security of the United States, that is, our currency exchange rate. As part of the government's anti-counterfeit technology for the new $20 bill — the one with Andrew Jackson's portrait, Barry revealed that "the new bill is impregnated with plutonium particles that emit a distinctive pattern of atomic radiation." Barry quoted government sources as saying, "This poses absolutely no health danger whatsoever to humans," but "do not ever put the bill in your pocket."

Since D.B. has "spilled the beans," I can fill in the details.

"Impregnated" is a cutesy reference to the fact that the Department of Energy (new motto: Make love, not war.) has a secret plan to prevent a new population "explosion" due to "fallout" from Viagra. The warning, "Do not ever put this bill in your pocket," is to appear on the new $20 bill so it looks like the Surgeon General's warning on packs of cigarettes. The reverse psychology is that the American male, being a macho stud, will laugh at any such warning and stuff the bills deep into his pockets where the plutonium particles will "cool down" certain organs that have a generative function.

The reason I know all this is that I live next door to the U.S. government's Hanford Nuclear Site, where most of the plutonium in the world was produced at a cost of many kabillions of dollars. If that figure seems high, it helps to know that (I am not making this up!) the U.S. nuclear weapons industry was the size of the U.S. automobile industry.

With the end of the Cold War, tons and tons of plutonium changed from our most expensive asset to our most costly liability. And we are now faced with spending more kabillions to get rid of the stuff. But since — unlike nerve gas — we can never really get rid of it, the $20 Bill Project (code name: Randy Andy) is one way to at least spread the stuff around to all the states that won't take their share of nuclear waste.

Because weapon plutonium cost more than its weight in diamonds, the Department of Energy is also entering a marketing arrangement with DeBeers to make plutonium a premium precious metal in which to mount their faux cubic zirconia. With a half-life of 24,000 years, the advertising slogan will be: "Plutonium is forever."

- Jim Stoffels, chairman and editor
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 1998