Decades-long plutonium campaign will face challenges, new interim report says

December 3, 2018

A prospective 31-year plutonium disposition campaign will likely encounter several serious obstacles over the course of its lifetime, according to a newly released interim report handled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The report – ” Disposal of Surplus Plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” a product of congressional request – states the U.S. Department of Energy’s conceptual plans to rid of surplus defense plutonium via dilute-and-dispose may face funding fluctuations, programming changes and public perception woes, among other things.

The dilute-and-dispose process has at this point been proven on a smaller scale by the DOE’s environmental management branch. The report acknowledges that.

Scaling dilute-and-dispose to the 34 metric tons level is a whole other issue, though, the report notes. No judgement was rendered by the study panel on that matter because of lack of information.

Dilute-and-dispose, the DOE’s preferred Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility alternative, involves mixing plutonium with inert material for burial at WIPP, a deep geologic repository in New Mexico.

The dilute-and-dispose process – essentially a cross-country odyssey – involves four major facilities and locations: The Pantex Plant in Texas, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, SRS and WIPP.

“The process, if implemented, would involve a large number of sites, organizations and stakeholders,” the report reads.

Accordingly, more than two decades of trucking trips would be needed, the report reads. That involves lots of interstate travel, lots of coordination and lots of potential outrage.

WIPP, originally designed for transuranic waste, does not accept waste via rail, according to a report footnote.

Both U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty support the dilute-and-dispose undertaking. In his May 10 bid to kill MOX, a now-null venture designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel, Perry named dilute-and-dispose as the right path forward.

The dilute-and-dispose process is less complex than the construction of the MOX fuel option, according to the interim report.

MOX was more than a decade in the making when it was terminated Oct. 10 by the NNSA, a semiautonomous DOE agency. The project had ballooned well past its initial budget and timeline.

The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 as a private, independent science and technology institution. The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964. And the National Academy of Medicine was established in 1970. All three work cohesively.

The full surplus plutonium report will be issued later.

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