U.S. Energy Department returns to costly and risky plutonium separation technologies

On July 17, the United Kingdom ended 58 years of plutonium separation for nuclear fuel by closing its Magnox nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield, leaving the U.K. with the world’s largest stock of separated power-reactor plutonium — 140 metric tons as of the end of 2020, including 22 tons separated for Japan. The U.K. is also second in the world only to Russia in the size of its overall inventory of separated plutonium with 119 tons, including 3.2 tons for weapons. Russia’s stock, 191 tons, is mostly “weapon-grade” separated for use in nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but the U.K.’s power-reactor plutonium is also weapon usable, and therefore also poses a security risk. The U.K. has no plan for how it will dispose of its separated plutonium. Its “prudent estimate” for the disposal cost is $12.6 billion.

One way to get rid of separated plutonium is to mix it with depleted uranium to make “mixed-oxide” (MOX) fuel energetically equivalent to low-enriched uranium fuel, the standard fuel of conventional reactors. Despite the poor economics, since 1976 France has routinely separated out the approximately one percent plutonium in the low-enriched uranium spent fuel discharged by its water-cooled reactors and recycled the plutonium in MOX fuel.

But both the U.K. and the U.S. have had negative experiences with building their own MOX production plants. In 2001, the U.K. completed a MOX plant, only to abandon it in 2011 after 10 years of failed attempts to make it operate. For its part, the U.S. Energy Department, which owns almost 50 tons of excess Cold War plutonium, contracted with the French government-owned nuclear-fuel cycle company, Areva (now Orano), in 2008 to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant. But the United States switched to a “dilute and dispose” policy for its excess plutonium in 2017 after the estimated cost of the MOX plant grew from $2.7 billion to $17 billion.

Despite decades of failed attempts around the world to make separated plutonium an economic fuel for nuclear power plants, the U. S. Department of Energy is once again promoting the recycling of separated plutonium in the fuel of “advanced” reactor designs that were found to be economically uncompetitive 50 years ago. At the same time, other countries — including Canada and South Korea, working in collaboration with the Energy Department’s nuclear laboratories — are also promoting plutonium separation as a “solution” to their own spent fuel disposal problems. These efforts not only gloss over the long history of failure of these nuclear technologies; they also fail to take into account the proliferation risk associated with plutonium separation — a risk that history has shown to be quite real.

As the U.K. finally turns its back on plutonium separation, the U.S. DOE is looking in the other direction. Within the Energy Department, the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation is struggling to dispose of excess Cold War weapons plutonium, as two others — the Office of Nuclear Energy and the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy — are promoting plutonium separation.

In 2020, the Office of Nuclear Energy put out a fact sheet about spent nuclear fuel in which the fifth and last “fact” stated: “Used fuel can be recycled. … More than 90 percent of its potential energy still remains in the fuel, even after five years of operation in a reactor. The United States does not currently recycle used nuclear fuel, but foreign countries, such as France, do. There are also some advanced reactor designs in development that could consume or run on used nuclear fuel in the future.”

The advanced reactor design the Office of Nuclear Energy refers to in its fact sheet is a plutonium breeder reactor that could, theoretically, convert the uranium 238 that constitutes more than 90 percent of the mass of spent fuel into plutonium and fission it — all of that over many recycles and hundreds of years.

In fact, the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy is promoting sodium-cooled reactor designs based on the Idaho National Laboratory’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was shut down in 1994 due to a lack of mission after the end of the U.S. breeder program a decade earlier. DOE’s office is now supporting research, development and demonstration of sodium-cooled reactors by several nuclear energy startups. Among them is Bill Gates’ Terrapower, to which the department has committed as much as $2 billion in matching funds to build a 345- megawatt-electric, sodium-cooled prototype reactor — called Natrium (sodium in Latin) — in the state of Wyoming. One of Wyoming’s current senators, John Barrasso, is a leading advocate of nuclear power and could become chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources if the Republicans take control of the upper chamber in the elections this fall.

Terrapower insists Natrium is not a plutonium breeder reactor and will be fueled “once through” with uranium enriched to just below 20 percent and its spent fuel disposed of directly in a deep geologic repository without reprocessing. Natrium, however, is set to use, initially at least, the same type of fuel used in Idaho’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II. DOE maintains that this spent fuel cannot be disposed of directly because the sodium in the fuel could burn if it contacts underground water or air. On that basis, the Idaho National Laboratory has been struggling for 25 years to treat a mere three tons of spent fuel from the Experimental Breeder Reactor II using a special reprocessing technology called “pyro-processing,” in which the fuel is dissolved in molten salt instead of acid, and the plutonium and uranium are recovered by passing a current through the salt and plating them out on electrodes. In 2021, Terrapower stated that it plans to switch later to a fuel for Natrium that does not contain sodium but then received in March 2022 the largest of eleven Energy Department grants for research and development on new reprocessing technologies.

Liquid-sodium-cooled reactor designs date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the global nuclear power community believed conventional power reactor capacity would quickly outgrow the available supply of high-grade uranium ore. Conventional reactors are fueled primarily by chain-reacting uranium 235, which comprises only 0.7 percent by weight of natural uranium. Because of this low percentage, nuclear power advocates focused on developing plutonium “breeder” reactors that would be fueled by chain-reacting plutonium produced from the abundant but non-chain-reacting uranium 238 isotope, which constitutes 99.3 percent of natural uranium. Large programs were launched to provide startup fuel for the breeder reactors by reprocessing spent conventional power-reactor fuel to recover its contained plutonium.

However, the growth of electrical power production slowed dramatically worldwide in the 1970s. In the United States, the annual growth rate went from an average of 6.6 percent during the period 1920-70 to 1.9 percent during 1970-2020. Had the pre-1970 growth rate persisted as U.S. electric utilities expected, U.S. electricity production would have been 11 times larger in 2020 than it was. A similar pattern happened globally with 8 percent average growth in 1920-70 and 3.2 percent in 1970-2020.

Because of the less-than-expected demand for electricity, the growth of nuclear power slowed and then stopped. Declining construction rates drove capital costs for new nuclear power plants higher in most countries, while costs of natural gas-fired, wind and photovoltaic power plants plunged. Liquid sodium-cooled breeder reactors proved even more costly than conventional water-cooled reactors. Only a few prototypes were built and then mostly abandoned. In 2020, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency estimated that sufficient low-cost uranium would be available to fuel existing conventional reactor capacity for more than a century.

Even though separated plutonium has morphed from the nuclear fuel of the future into a disposal problem, civilian plutonium separation continues in several countries, notably France, Japan and Russia. It is also being advocated again by the offices within the DOE that fund research and development on nuclear energy.

Advocates of sodium-cooled reactors in the U.S. have obtained congressional backing, at least temporarily. In 2018, following efforts led by the two senators from Idaho, Congress mandated that DOE examine the construction of a new sodium-cooled reactor — later named the Versatile Test Reactor — to test reactor materials and fuels for a possible new generation of these reactors. The legislation required the reactor to start operating by the end of 2025. DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory proposed a scaled-up version of its shut-down Experimental Breeder Reactor II with an estimated cost of $2.6 to 5.8 billion. DOE chose General Electric-Hitachi to build the reactor, which then proposed to partner with Bill Gates’ Terrapower. After the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy awarded Terrapower up to $2 billion to build the Natrium reactor — which would be very similar to the Versatile Test Reactor — by 2028, the department deferred the decision to build the latter reactor until 2027. Nevertheless, DOE requested $145 million for the Versatile Test Reactor in its fiscal year 2022 budget, but Congress provided no funding.

There is one major public-policy objection to plutonium separation: Plutonium can be used to make a nuclear weapon. The chain-reacting material in the Nagasaki bomb was six kilograms (16 pounds) of plutonium, and the fission triggers of virtually all nuclear warheads today are powered with plutonium. Reactor-grade plutonium is weapon-usable, as well.

In the United States, the government concluded that neither breeder reactors nor spent fuel reprocessing could compete economically with water-cooled reactors fueled by once-through, low-enriched uranium fuel and subsequently decided to end funding for both programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With no government funding, the private sector also lost interest in the programs.

Despite the unfavorable economics, the idea of separating and fissioning the plutonium in spent fuel has been kept alive in the United States and some other countries in part by continuing political and technical obstacles to siting spent fuel repositories. Proponents of reprocessing have managed to keep their governments’ attention on plutonium because it is a long-lived radioelement, a ferocious carcinogen if inhaled, and has fuel value if recycled.

However, detailed studies have concluded that plutonium makes a relatively small contribution to the long-term risk from a spent fuel geologic repository for spent fuel from commercial power reactors. Plutonium has relatively low solubility in deep groundwater, which makes it less mobile in the environment and slow to reach the surface. Moreover, plutonium is not concen-trated in the food chain and, even if it were ingested, only about one percent of it would be absorbed into the body from the gut.

As a cumulative result of all of these barriers, the doses to humans through the food chain from plutonium caused by a leaking repository have been found to be minor in comparison to the doses from more water-soluble, long-lived radioisotopes. Calculations by SKB, Sweden’s nuclear waste management company, found that the long-term hazard from spent fuel is dominated first by carbon 14 (with a half-life of 5,700 years) produced through neutron absorption by atmospheric nitrogen trapped in fuel; then by the fission product iodine 129 (16 million-year half-life); and finally by radium 226 (which has only a 1,600-year half-life but is a decay product of uranium 238, which has a 4.5 billion-year half-life).

The SKB results are consistent with the conclusions of a massive five-year study by the National Academy of Sciences on separation and transmutation technologies for nuclear waste commissioned by DOE in 1991. That study, which was completed in 1996, found that “none of the [repository] dose reductions seem large enough to warrant the expense and additional operational risk of transmutation.”

These risk assessments are theoretical, but they are based on real-world experience with the movement of radioisotopes through the environment. The main source of that experience is from the large quantities of fission products and plutonium lofted into the stratosphere by the fireballs of megaton-scale atmospheric nuclear tests between 1952 and 1980. During that period, the Soviet Union, the United States, China, the United Kingdom and France injected into the stratosphere a total of about eight tons of fission products and 3.4 tons of plutonium — comparable to the quantities in a few hundred tons of spent light water reactor fuel. These radioisotopes returned to earth as global radioactive “fallout.”

The U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that the total dose from plutonium in the fallout was relatively small, with the most important contribution being due to inhalation on the plutonium’s way to the ground. Once on the ground, UNSCEAR estimated that the doses from ingestion of the plutonium would be relatively small.

In addition to the proliferation danger, plutonium separation also brings with it a danger of a massive accidental radioactive release during reprocessing. The world’s worst nuclear accident before Chernobyl involved the Soviet Union’s first reprocessing plant for plutonium production in 1957.

Some reprocessing advocates argue that the plutonium in spent fuel directly disposed of deep underground might be mined in the future to make nuclear weapons. This is a legitimate concern but the tradeoffs are complex: Reducing the danger of future proliferation by removing the plutonium from spent fuel before burial increases nuclear proliferation and terrorism risks today.

It is time for governments to learn again about the risks involved with plutonium separation and to fence off “no-go zones” for their nuclear energy advocates, lest they unintentionally precipitate a new round of nuclear-weapon proliferation.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sept. 14, 2022 and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Fall 2022

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Why a decision on a second U.S. plutonium-pit-production factory should be delayed

Frank von Hippel

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the organization within the Energy Department that is responsible for producing and maintaining U.S. nuclear warheads, is moving forward with a plan to build a plutonium-pit- production factory at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. “Pits” are the form of the plutonium in the fission trigger “primaries” of U.S. two-stage thermonuclear warheads.

The primary motivation for this move is lack of confidence in the pit-production capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been responsible for preserving U.S. pit production expertise since production at the Rocky Flats Plant outside of Denver shut down at the end of the Cold War. There are also political motivations, including filling the jobs gap at the Savannah River Site resulting from the collapse of NNSA’s effort to build a Mixed-oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility there to process some of its excess Cold War plutonium pits into power reactor fuel.

NNSA’s rush forward may result in a debacle on top of a debacle. If the experts at Los Alamos can’t manage pit production there, why does NNSA think that they can design and train the staff to operate a pit-production facility at the Savannah River Site?

Also, the United States need for pits is unclear. In 2007, the pits produced at Rocky Flats — now 30 to 40 years old — were pronounced to be good for at least a century and, in 2012, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory upped the durability estimate to 150 years. NNSA did not support the necessary research to solidify this conclusion, however — an oversight that it now promises to remedy.

The NNSA also claims that it needs to produce new pits for two types of safer primaries for two new nuclear warheads, but there seem to be enough already-existing pits for one of the warheads, and the design for the second has not yet been decided.

Thus, there are multiple arguments for delaying a decision on the proposed second pit-production facility for a decade or so. By then, Los Alamos should have mastered the production of pits, the longevity of the legacy pits will be better established, and the need for pits not available in the legacy stockpile should be clarified.

Each U.S. nuclear warhead contains a miniature advanced version of the Nagasaki nuclear bomb weighing only about two percent of what the original Nagasaki bomb weighed. This “primary” is built around a hollow shell of plutonium, which is surrounded by chemical explosive.

When that explosive is triggered, the pit is rapidly imploded into a spherical solid mass compressed to about twice the normal density of plutonium. Near the point of maximum density, before the plutonium begins to bounce back to its normal density, a small neutron generator sprays it with a burst of neutrons that initiates exponentially multiplying fission chain reactions. Within a microsecond, about 20 grams of the plutonium fissions, releasing energy equivalent to the explosion of about 300 tons of TNT, thereby heating the material in the primary to about a million degrees Centigrade.

At that temperature, fusion reactions occur in the several grams of tritium and deuterium that are injected into the hollow pit just before the implosion. Those fusion reactions produce an intense burst of neutrons that fission hundreds more grams of plutonium, “boosting” the energy of the fission explosion to the equivalent of about 10,000 tons of TNT, half the power of the Nagasaki bomb.

At that point, the primary is so hot that its glow is mostly X-rays that fill the “radiation case” surrounding the primary and a secondary nuclear explosive nested next to it. The X-rays vaporize the outer layer of the “secondary,” imploding and heating it and igniting a mix of fusion and fission reactions that, depending on the warhead, release from a few times to 25 times the energy of the Nagasaki bomb from a warhead about one-twentieth the weight of the 4.4 ton Nagasaki bomb.

The last nuclear test of a U.S. primary was conducted in 1992, when Congress imposed a moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing, launching negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the United States signed in 1996.

Despite the lack of U.S. testing, however, there is no doubt that the primaries in U.S. nuclear warheads will implode or that, if the primary works, the secondary will explode. The issues that have been raised relate to whether the plutonium might become brittle and fragment as it implodes, and whether, if that happened, the tritium-deuterium boost gas would ignite. The NNSA spends billions of dollars each year investigating this question with ever-more-refined computer simulations of what happens inside a pit during its implosion and tests of the behavior of aging plutonium under shock, including in subcritical tests in tunnels deep under the former Nevada Test Site.

The decision on a second pit production facility should be delayed for a number of reasons. Since the Savannah River Site staff has no experience with pit production, the facility would have to be designed and the staff trained by the Los Alamos group. But the Los Alamos group has not yet demonstrated that it can design and staff its own pit production facility.

Within a decade, we should have a new lower limit on the functional lives of the legacy pits. If they will indeed last for at least 150 years, as the Livermore experts concluded, then there will be no need for a large production facility to replace them anytime soon. The Los Alamos facility, if it can be made operational, should be sufficient for some decades.

Livermore’s deputy program leader for enhanced surveillance of pit aging stated, “In the near term, the nation can save tens of billions of dollars that might be required to build a new production facility.”

So, we can wait for another decade before deciding whether the United States requires a second pit production facility, or whether we need any new pits at all.

Frank von Hippel is one of the United States’ most prominent scientists in the nuclear policy arena. He is a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. His article is edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 12, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August 2020.

(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.)

Britain has 139 tons of plutonium. That’s a real problem.

The United Kingdom’s last plutonium reprocessing plant, B205, located in Sellafield in northern England, will shut down by the end of 2020. It will bring an end to the era of plutonium separation in the country, which began 68 years ago. Because the United Kingdom never used any of the material it recovered from reprocessing except in nuclear weapons, today it has amassed a stockpile of almost 139 metric tons of separated plutonium, including 23 metric tons owned by other countries, mostly Japan. This creates lasting problems.

Plutonium stored at Sellafield is highly toxic and poses a permanent risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. It is enough material to build tens of thousands of warheads.

According to estimates, storage will cost the British government about 90-million dollars a year for the next century. But after decades of public and private consultation, there is still no accepted plan for its disposal. In the meantime, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is working on the consolidation of the stockpiles at Sellafield and developing the capability to re-treat the packages to allow for long-term storage once the government makes a final decision on the method of permanent disposal.

The United Kingdom views the material as a resource and is pursuing options that involve burning the plutonium in reactors. Reuse is touted as a proliferation-resistant option because the spent fuel would be too radioactive to handle, at least at first. However, assessments have shown risks associated with such a choice since the concept has never been demonstrated on an industrial scale.

A second alternative would be to treat plutonium as waste and immobilize it for permanent burial. Here, the plutonium would be mixed with other materials that reduce the risk of leaching into the ground and complicate extraction. Potentially, the radioactive waste in the mix could also serve as a toxic obstacle to proliferation.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s preferred option seems to be the reuse of the plutonium in mixed-oxide fuel for light water reactors. However, such an option depends on the availability and willingness of reactor operators to use such fuel, and not all operators are agreeable to the idea.

Using plutonium as a reactor fuel has two effects: Some plutonium is burned in the production of electrical power and the remainder is left in highly radioactive spent fuel. The radioactivity creates a barrier for malicious actors intending to steal and separate the plutonium from that fuel, providing proliferation resistance. However, due to radioactive decay, this barrier continuously decreases. In the time it takes to treat the United Kingdom’s massive stockpile in reactors, the already treated material will slowly lose its proliferation resistance.

The United Kingdom has to find a solution for its plutonium stockpile, and quickly. The British government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and reactor operators in general should accept that separated plutonium is a burden, not a resource, and authority should again take a closer look at immobilization options. These do not have the sheen of new, high-tech solutions like burning the plutonium in specially-tailored reactor concepts. But given that action is urgently needed, established and working concepts should be the way forward.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 17, 2020
PeaceMeal, May/June 2020

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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