Sunday, September 10, 2017

GAO Studies Surplus Pu Disposal

In a report issued in September, 2017, the GAO described the results of its recent study of the DOE's strategies for disposing of 34 MT of surplus plutonium, pursuant to an agreement entered into with the Russians in 2000, by the Clinton Administration. This agreement mandated the conversion of weapons grade plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel to be burned in specially designed nuclear reactors, for the purpose of generating electricity, and in order to render the plutonium unusable in new nuclear weapons. This process, once completed, was considered to be irreversible.

Alternately, the agreement, as later modified at the behest of the US, also allowed for the disposition of the surplus plutonium by any other means acceptable to the parties, if agreed upon in writing at some  future time.

NNSA began constructing the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX facility) in 2007 at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, under the G. W. Bush Administration.

In its fiscal year 2014 budget justification, DOE under the Obama Administration stated that pursuing the MOX approach might be unaffordable due to the growth in costs for completing the program, and it proposed a slowdown of program activities while it assesses other alternative plutonium disposition approaches. [Regarding things nuclear, it might be fair to say that the Obama Administration's views were a bit incoherent.]

In April 2014, DOE completed an analysis of plutonium disposition options that identified an alternative disposition approach that could significantly reduce the life-cycle cost of the Plutonium Disposition Program. This alternative would involve diluting the plutonium and disposing of it in a geologic repository.

Russia suspended its implementation of the agreement in October 2016, citing delays in the United States’ program.

It remains to be seen what the new Trump Administration will choose to do with the 34 MT of surplus plutonium, if anything.

September 2017

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO)
Report to the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate  (By Summary Points)

Proposed Dilute and Dispose Approach Highlights Need for More Work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Recent Cost Estimates for the MOX and Dilute and Dispose Approaches

WIPP and TRU Waste Volumes

DOE’s TRU Waste Planning

February 2014 Accidents at WIPP

DOE Capital Asset Acquisition Process

GAO Cost-Estimating Best Practices

DOE’s Revised Cost Estimate for Constructing the MOX Facility Substantially Met Best Practices, but NNSA Has Not Yet Applied Best Practices to the Revised Life-cycle Cost Estimate for Completing the Overall Program

DOE’s Revised Cost Estimate for Constructing the MOX Facility Substantially Met Best Practices and Can Be Considered Reliable

NNSA Has Not Yet Applied Best Practices When Revising Its Life-Cycle Cost Estimate for the Plutonium Disposition Program Using the MOX Approach

NNSA Is Developing a Life-cycle Cost Estimate for Completing the Plutonium Disposition Program Using the Dilute and Dispose Approach

NNSA Has Determined It Will Need to Expand Its Plutonium Preparation Capabilities for Dilute and Dispose

NNSA Has Determined It Needs Additional Equipment and Facilities to Dilute Plutonium and Is Estimating the Cost to Acquire It

NNSA Is Assessing Potential Costs Associated with Disposing of Diluted Plutonium at WIPP

WIPP Does Not Have Sufficient Space to Meet Current TRU Waste Disposal Needs, and Future Volumes May Exceed Statutory Capacity Even Without Diluted Plutonium

WIPP Will Need to Be Expanded to Dispose of Defense TRU Waste Already Planned for WIPP

DOE’s Inventory of TRU Waste Planned for WIPP Is Not Comprehensive, and Additional Waste Could Exceed WIPP’s Statutory Capacity

DOE Is Reviewing Alternative Waste Counting Methods That Would Allow It to Dispose of More Waste, including Diluted Plutonium, at WIPP without Exceeding the Statutory Capacity

DOE Has Not Developed Plans for Expanding WIPP’s Disposal Space and Changing the Waste Counting Method

Expansion of WIPP Disposal Space

Revision of Method for Counting Waste Volumes


DOE is currently in the process of reevaluating the best approach for disposing of 34 MT of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.

DOE’s 2016 revised cost estimate of $17.2 billion for construction of the MOX facility substantially followed best practices, and we believe it can be considered reliable. However, NNSA’s revised life-cycle cost estimate for the Plutonium Disposition Program using the MOX approach of $56 billion does not yet incorporate cost estimating best practices as we have previously recommended. Reviews by NNSA and some outside experts found that the dilute and dispose approach has the potential to cost significantly less, but NNSA is still developing a life-cycle cost estimate for this alternative. If the decision is made to move forward with the dilute and dispose approach, DOE will need to ensure that there is sufficient disposal space and statutory capacity at WIPP to dispose of the diluted plutonium. WIPP is a geologic repository for defense TRU waste and will need to accommodate all such waste unless DOE pursues an additional repository.

DOE has not adequately planned for all possible waste that it may be expected to dispose of in WIPP, complicating its ability to determine whether the waste from the dilute and dispose approach can be disposed of at WIPP. In particular, DOE does not have a schedule for when TRU waste generator sites will complete the determinations on whether the potential waste identified in DOE’s annual TRU waste inventory report can be disposed of at WIPP. Without developing this schedule, DOE cannot be assured that it has timely information on whether to include this waste as part of its planning for WIPP’s future space and capacity needs. In addition, DOE’s TRU waste inventory report does not capture several possible future sources of waste, including waste from thedecontamination and decommissioning of facilities or waste that may be generated after 2050. DOE’s guidance for estimating future waste does not specify how possible future waste should be estimated and reported. Without developing guidance that helps sites produce a more comprehensive estimate for the volumes of TRU waste that may be generated in the future from cleanup operations, including estimates of buried waste, waste that may be generated from facility closure and cleanup, and other potential sources of TRU waste not currently reflected in the TRU waste inventory report, DOE will not have the information it needs to effectively estimate the need for future space for TRU waste disposal and ensure that its plans are in compliance with WIPP’s statutory capacity.

To address WIPP’s future space and capacity needs, DOE will need approvals from EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department. However, DOE is uncertain about the extent of approvals required and has not initiated planning efforts to obtain these approvals. DOE does not have plans to show how additional space will be excavated in time to prevent a disruption in waste shipments after the facility’s existing disposal space is filled in 2026. Without a long-term plan that includes the need for expanding WIPP’s disposal space and an integrated schedule that describes how DOE will complete the regulatory approval process and construction of new space before WIPP’s existing space is full, DOE does not have reasonable assurance that it will be able to expand the repository before waste shipments must be slowed or suspended. DOE also does not have a timeline for determining whether it will change its method of counting waste volumes and therefore does not know whether this action will be completed by 2020, when NNSA’s program requirements for the dilute and dispose approach assume that potential capacity constraints at WIPP will have been addressed. Without DOE developing a timeline to help determine whether it can change its method of counting waste volumes to meet NNSA’s 2020 milestone for resolving potential disposal space constraints at WIPP, DOE and other stakeholders may not have the information they need in a timely manner to know whether possible future waste, such as waste from the dilute and dispose approach, can be added to the waste planned for disposal at WIPP without potentially exceeding the facility’s statutory disposal capacity.

GAO Recommendations for Executive Action:

To ensure that DOE has a full understanding of the department’s long-term TRU waste disposal requirements and the capability of WIPP to meet those requirements, we recommend that the Secretary of Energy take the following four actions:
• Develop a schedule for deciding whether the volumes of “potential waste” identified in the annual TRU waste inventory report can be disposed of at WIPP.
• Develop guidance that helps sites produce a more comprehensive estimate for the volumes of TRU waste that may be generated in the future from cleanup operations, including estimates of buried waste, waste that may be generated from decontamination and decommissioning of nuclear facilities, and waste that may be generated past WIPP’s expected closure date of 2050.
• Develop a long-term plan for disposing of DOE’s TRU waste that includes:
• the need for excavating additional disposal space at WIPP and an integrated schedule that describes how DOE will complete the regulatory approval process and construction of new space before WIPP’s existing space is full, and
• a timeline to help determine whether DOE can change its method of counting waste volumes to meet NNSA’s 2020 milestone for resolving potential disposal space constraints at WIPP.

DOE Comments and GAO Evaluation:

We provided a draft of this report to DOE for review and comment. In written comments, reproduced in appendix VI, DOE concurred with the report’s recommendations. DOE stated that our recommendations were consistent with the department’s commitment to improve management of the national TRU waste program and to efficiently and effectively utilize WIPP for disposal of eligible TRU waste. DOE outlined actions that it intends to take in response to our recommendations, including developing disposal schedules for potential waste once certain prerequisite actions are taken that provide the basis for determining whether or not the waste is TRU waste that can be disposed of at WIPP; developing new guidance by December 2018 to assist DOE sites produce more comprehensive estimates of future TRU waste that may be generated from cleanup operations; and developing a long-term plan by December 2018 for disposal of DOE’s TRU waste, including an initial design for potential new waste disposal panels at WIPP and options for changing the method of counting waste volumes disposed of at WIPP. We believe that these steps, once implemented, would address our recommendations.

In addition, DOE highlighted the following two points:

• DOE’s Office of Environmental Management is focused on the WIPP mission as currently defined by law.
• DOE has not made a final decision to use the dilute and dispose approach to dispose of the 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium that the department previously decided to fabricate into mixed-oxide fuel.

It remains to be seen what the new Trump Administration will choose to do with the 34 MT of surplus plutonium, if anything.

See my blogpost of March 31, 2016 entitled DOE Decides to Bury Its Waste for further info.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Citizens Thriving on Nuke Work

NM citizens thriving on nuclear weapons work inveigle NNSA/DOE for lucrative new LANL contract.

Residents of northern New Mexico, dependent on nuclear weapons work, are galvanized by the prospect of a new LANL contract:

As reported by Tris DeRoma for the Los Almos Monitor, on Friday, August 18, 2017

"Low contract fee could spell trouble for northern New Mexico, advisor warns"

"An advisor to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, John Jewkowski,  expressed concern about a one percent performance fee in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s draft request proposal for the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s management and operations contract. The one percent fee is two percentage points lower than what the current contract is now."

"The first point Jekowsky made is that the low fee may not be enough to attract the right type of company or organization that could run a nuclear laboratory effectively. He also doubted that even if the NNSA reestablished the three percent performance fee that is in the current contract the NNSA has with Los Alamos National Security LLC, it still might not be enough to attract the best and the brightest."

“ 'Even back in that timeframe, that 2012, 2014 timeframe, major corporate entities, CEOs, and major executives of major corporate entities were telling DOE (the Department of Energy), ‘look, three and a half percent does not cut it,' ” Jekowsky said. “ 'We’re all publically traded companies… we have shareholders and boards of directors we all have to report to. The work we do outside the DOE typically earns us, five percent, six percent, seven percent in terms of a profit or fee for that work. Three and a half percent just doesn’t cut it.' ”

"Jekowsky also said if the NNSA sticks to the one percent fee, that will mean less money if the management and operations contract goes to a consortium, and that will also mean less money the consortium would give back to the community in the form of support for non-profit efforts, education and partnerships."


This is the latest of a series of articles in the Los Alamos Monitor describing a public debate about the size of the management fee to be specified by the new contract. The present fee is ~3% of the cost of the contract, ~$2.5 billion per year, so that the annual fee is now set at  ~$75 million. This contract has been in place since 2006, and the contractor, a for-profit entity LANS-LLC , was created expressly to advantage a small number of LANL senior managers, who became the principal owners of LANS-LLC. The CEO of LANS-LLC, also the LANL Director,  takes home ~$1.5 million, each year.

However, prior to 2006, and running all the way back to 1943, the contractor at LANL was the University of California, a not for-profit entity, who sometimes set its own management fee as low as $1. In early 2016, and with UC as the contractor, the LANL Director received an annual salary of just ~$200,000.

A little more history:

From 1943, and continuously until 2006, LANL had been managed by UC as a public service. In the earliest years, the Lab had a clear mission and a reason to exist. At that time, it was staffed by scientists and engineers who were said to be among the nation's best and brightest.

By 1950, many of the Lab's technical stars (Bethe and Fermi, to name two) had returned to academe, although often remaining affiliated with the Lab. However, a few became disillusioned with the use to which their technical work had been put, and severed all ties with the Lab (such as Leo Szilard.)

In the 1950's, the Lab became embroiled in a controversy over the development of thermonuclear weapons. These weapons, largely developed at LLNL (since its founding, in 1952, by Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, and until 2007, also managed by UC as a public service,) appeared to many to unnecessarily fan the flames of confrontation between the USA and the USSR. Even so, both LANL and LLNL retained their clear mission and reason to exist.

Subsequent to the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, following the cessation of underground nuclear weapons testing in 1996, and with ~30,000 nuclear weapons piled up in the US arsenal of nuclear weapons, DOE managers were moved to create a new mission for themselves and for the Labs. This was Science Based Stockpile Stewardship, an approach to maintaining the nuclear arsenal by means of computer simulations, along with ancillary sub-critical nuclear testing, in lieu of underground testing of intact nuclear weapons. The program has continued for the last ~25 years. Various outside technical advisory groups, such as JASON, have signaled to DOE their belief that the program has produced reliable technical results for the Labs.

SBSS is now known as Stockpile Stewardship, or SS, de-emphasizing the fact that predictions of future performance of nuclear weapons is now based entirely on the results of computer simulations, and laboratory-scale testing.

In spite of this apparent recent success, it may be that the Labs' current mission lacks sufficient appeal to attract today's best and the brightest into its service.

Meanwhile, the Labs, especially LANL, have had problems with safety and security. These problems began to interest the national press in ~1990, increasing in visibility throughout the Clinton Administration, and into the G W Bush Administration, where it was decided that the fault lay with shoddy UC management; the cure for which was judged to be a for-profit contractor who, motivated by a desire for lucre, would be a better manager.

Looking a bit more closely here, problems of apparent  Lab and DOE mismanagement seemed to rise in ~1995, when a Lab-wide RIF at LANL was devised as a means to cope with what was advertised as a funding short-fall, but one that never materialized. Morale of LANL staff plunged in the wake of the RIF, and staff paranoia grew. Next came the Wen Ho Lee affair, in 1999, aggravated by panicky reactions of  higher-ups in the Clinton Administration; e.g., especially, those of Attorney General, Janet Reno, and Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.

Then, during the Bush years (2000-2009,) DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham (2001-2005,) a former US Senator from Michigan and co-founder of the Federalist Society, appointed George Peter Nanos as LANL Director (2003-2005.) This former US Navy Vice Admiral seemed to believe that he would cure purported management problems at LANL, by teaching LANL's "butt-heads and cowboys" who was boss. One of his lasting accomplishments was to change the UC inspired practice of allowing retired LANL scientists to continue working on Lab science projects, in Lab-provided space, after retirement. Nanos said that his practice was an example of "bad academic culture" encouraged by UC, which led to the "coddling" of Lab scientists, who would be better off with a more military-style discipline.

Back to the present:

Several interested parties have spoken out about the RFP, put out recently by NNSA/DOE, as a guide to selection of the next LANL contractor. Many of these opinions have been described in the LAM, by Tris De Roma. Opinions expressed were those of: UPTE, RCLC, LAPS, LAC. Even though each has its own constituency, the points-of-view have not differed significantly among three of the four, the exception being of that of UPTE, who speaks only for the LANL technical staff. The other three groups represent the economic interests of the citizens of northern New Mexico who may or may not work at LANL, but whose quality of life could be affected by economic benefits brought into the local comuunity by the nuclear weapons industry. Among the three community groups, the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities expresses general interests of communities stretching northward from Santa Fe;  Los Alamos County has views limited by the boundaries of the County; and Los Alamos Public Schools is concerned with the LA public school system. However, all three groups are sure that their interests would be best served by a for-profit contractor working for a management fee of at least 3% of the total contract.

UPTE is distinct in advocating for a new not-for-profit contractor, one working for a management fee of just 1%, but focussed on the elaboration of a clear new Lab mission and on the protection of benefits and status for the technical staff. To be sure, in the last twenty years, the technical staff has lost much in the way of benefits and of status. For example, a defined benefit plan that once guaranteed a retirement benefit of 2.5% of the average salary earned over the three years prior to retirement has been replaced by a defined contribution plan paying an unguaranteed retirement benefit of 2.0% per year of employment. Similarly, a vacation benefit of five weeks paid vacation for every new hiree has been replaced by an initial benefit of two weeks paid vacation.

What is clear, however, is that all of these groups seem economically bound to the the continuation of the nuclear weapons industry in northern New Mexico. Indeed, in a public meeting about the RFP that took place in Los Alamos in late April, 2017, the Executive Director of the RCLC was asked by a member of the public if she (Andrea Romero) was at all reluctant to be advocating for the very dirty nuclear weapons industry. She answered simply, "People have to have jobs."

This seems to me to be both shocking and ordinary at the same time, and is part of the wrenching experience of living with nuclear weapons.


From the earliest days, in 1943, the Lab's work surged in spite of problems with both safety and security. As a result of safety failures, lives were lost; and as a result of security lapses, secret technical information was disseminated to the Russians. And yet the Lab's nuclear weapons work continued. The Lab had a clear mission then, led by a generation of old-timers, all of whom were "there at the beginning": J Robert Oppenheimer (1943-1945), Norris Bradbury (1945-1970), and Harold Agnew (1970-1979.)

One might say that the Lab entered the modern era with the arrival of Lab Director Donald Kerr (1979-1986,) and that modernizing trends continued with Director Sigfried Hecker (1986-1997.) It seems that during Hecker's tenure problems of safety and security began to attract the attention of a critical national press.

Following the debacle of the RIF of 1995, Hecker stepped down and was replaced by John Browne (1997-2003,) who himself may have been damaged by political fallout from the Wen Ho Lee affair. Next came the brief and troubled tenure of G P Nanos (2003-2005,) followed by the holdover year of Robert Kukuck (2005-2006.)

In 2006, a new for-profit LANL contract was let to LANS-LLC, and a form of nuclear weapons profiteering began at LANL., which continues to this day.

Even so, security problems continued under LANS-LLC, although abated; safety violations, however, led to injuries and down-time, approximately at the same rate as before. In any case, the Lab's problems with safety and security were certainly not cured by the addition of lucre as a contractor motivating force.

But, according to the consultant, J Jewkowski, hired by RCLC, the resolution of the Lab's problems must lie in the application of even more lucre.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

DOE Decides to Bury Its Waste

 To be or not to be, that is the question!  Is the waste to be buried or the waste to be burned?

The DOE announced yesterday its intention to go forward with its plan to bury 6 metric tons (MT) of weapons grade, non-pit, plutonium at its WIPP site, in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This will be weapons grade plutonium obtained from a variety of sources, some of which are foreign. DOE's announcement refers to the down-blending methodology to be used, which may include conversion of the plutonium metal to an oxide powder, mixing with non-fissile isotopes of plutonium-oxide, and combining with other contaminants as well. (Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Final SPD Supplemental EIS) (DOE/EIS-0283-S2, April 2015))

The DOE notes that its down-blending procedure renders the weapons-grade plutonium "not readily usable" for nuclear weapons; i.e., not without first removing the contaminants and chemically reducing the plutonium-oxide back to metal; in my opinion, not a very daunting process. Nevertheless, the Administration asserts that DOE's plan will make a significant contribution to nuclear non-proliferation. Hmm!

 DOE/NNSA Undersecretary for Nuclear Security Frank Klotz signed the decision on the plutonium plan Wednesday, saying WIPP has a “proven process” for storing this type of waste stream; viz., it already has received 5 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado and the Hanford Site in Washington.

 New Mexico Governor S. Martinez has been quoted in the press as saying that she would welcome this latest addition to WIPP's inventory; i.e., as soon as DOE agrees that WIPP, now closed for emergency repairs, can be reopened. No surprise there!

 However, DOE does not refer to the fact that their latest scheme for dispositioning surplus plutonium does not accord with the agreement arrived at years ago with the Russians to permanently dispose of surplus plutonium by burning it in specially designed nuclear reactors. It seems that the present Administration has decided that it is simply too expensive now to go ahead with that program; but, no mention is made of what the Russians may do as a result.

 Meanwhile, the question remains of how to dispose of an additional 7 MT of plutonium from nuclear weapons pits. If the Administration is successful with its present plan, then it may be encouraged to bury this next installment of surplus plutonium at WIPP.

 For the future, and of great potential concern to the citizens of New Mexico, the next Administration will have to grapple again with the problem of the disposition of high-level waste from nuclear power plants. Perhaps DOE will push  to bury this dangerous long-lived waste at WIPP too. If so, then perhaps New Mexico's two US Senators will manage to push back?

Concerning the Obama administration's work on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or the achievement of nuclear weapons security for the USA, here are excerpts from an article in today's NYT:

As Obama Hosts Nuclear Security Summit, the Focus Is on China

MARCH 31, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama gathered more than 50 world leaders here on Thursday to discuss one of his favorite topics: locking down nuclear weapons.

“The entire premise of American foreign policy as it relates to nuclear weapons for the last 70 years has been focused on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, said. “That has been the position of bipartisan administrations, of everybody who has occupied the Oval Office.”

However, domestic politics and regional concerns both seemed to crowd out any discussion of global efforts to secure nuclear materials.

The terrorist attack in Belgium last week also cast a shadow over the gathering, particularly after reports that fighters for the Islamic State were seeking to penetrate a nuclear facility to obtain material for a so-called radioactive dirty bomb.

While the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, supports Mr. Obama’s nonproliferation policies, she has evinced little of his fervor for a nuclear-free world.

But as the leaders arrived for a dinner at the White House past an honor guard lined up along the South Lawn, Mr. Obama could claim one achievement: An amendment to a treaty that stiffens standards for protecting nuclear materials was signed by 102 nations.

The original protection agreement dates to 1987, but it has long been considered weak. The amendment, proposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, specifies minimum requirements for physical protection of civilian nuclear stocks, and for securing them when they are transported.

As part of an effort to be more open about its nuclear inventory, the United States announced that its stockpile of highly enriched uranium declined 20 percent, to 585.6 metric tons in 2013 from 740.7 metric tons in 1996. The decline was modest, but it was the first time in 15 years that the government released these numbers.

A senior administration official, who declined to speak on the record ahead of the president’s announcement, said that the amendments to the physical protection agreement are “the closest thing we have to legally binding standards for nuclear security.”

So, concerning the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and/or the achievement of nuclear weapons security for the USA, it seems that very modest progress has been made, but that the underlying existential threat remains. In summary, it is fair to say, in the words of the Poet::

And thus the native hue of resolution
is sicklied over, with the pale cast of thought,
and enterprises of great pitch and moment,
with this regard their currents turn awry,
and lose the name of action.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

DOE Declares a Preference

On December 30, 2015, I received a postcard in the US mail from the Department of Energy, announcing:

                                       "Notice of Preferred Alternative"
    "Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement"

which refers to the latest addition to an accumulation of documents which began as a trickle in 1996, and surged ahead in 2007, regarding the disposition of Pu declared surplus from the United States nuclear weapons program. The postcard also directs attention to the following DOE web address:

Wherein lies a multi-volume collection of historical observations, past and present ruminations and speculative conclusions, relating to the disposition of surplus US plutonium. But, this can be boiled down to just a few essentials:

1) On 24 Dec, 2015, DOE announced that:

"With regard to the 6 metric tons (6.6 tons) of surplus non-pit plutonium, DOE/NNSA’s Preferred Alternative is to prepare this plutonium for eventual disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico."

Presumably, the Pu waste would be prepared in a mixed state, thus deterring theft and later recovery as weapons usable Pu; or at least deterring it a little.  And maybe the actual mixing operation could be defined and carried out at LANL, whose management (LANS-LLC) has already learned how to  prepare mixtures for disposal at WIPP!

2) Unfortunately, DOE says that it does not know when, if ever, WIPP will be reopened for business; a small problem. And, they want to remind us that,

  " ... DOE’s recovery effort [continues] at the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) following two February 2014 incidents at the facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico."

3) Finally, disappointingly, DOE still does not know what to do with 34 metric tons of weapons-grade Pu, to be obtained from decommissioned, disabled, and disassembled nuclear weapons. This is the surplus Pu concerning which the US agreed with the Russian Federation, in 2007, to dispose of by converting to MOX fuel and burning in nuclear reactors. That is, according to DOE,

  " ... the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement [2007] between the USA and the Russian Federation calls for each nation to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade Pu by irradiating it as MOX fuel in nuclear reactors or by any other method that may be agreed by the Parties in writing."

But, let's not forget that, in 2013, a presidential commission was created to suggest ways to avoid having to carry out this agreement, at least insofar as the burning of MOX fuel was concerned, which was turning out to be very costly in  dollars, as well as in political capital. Now the commission has reported back their conclusions (Report of the Plutonium Disposition Working Group, April 2014) but there is still no action on the part of DOE, or of the Administration. Well, darn! Some things are really just too hard!

Clearly, the surplus Pu conundrum bedevils this Administration, will probably plague the next Administration, and perhaps the one after that too.

Meanwhile, come all you young scholars and gather round for a really good read, courtesy of DOE:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

NAS Misleads on Peer Review at Nuke Labs

Regarding the recent report of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine entitled "Peer Review in the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories":

Opinions expressed in this report suggest an unwarranted enthusiasm for nuclear weapons on the part of the NAS committee. Perhaps this bias was imposed by members of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which was the "sponsor" of the committee's work. (See news article in Physics Today, issue of Dec, 2015, quoting NNSA's chief scientist, Dimitri Kusnezov, regarding the NAS report: "How do you take the best out of this in terms of enhancing peer review ... against the backdrop that the decisions are not entirely ours to make ...  .  Because the work we do sits at the intersection of science and policy.")

 In particular, I refer to Conclusion 4 and Recommendation 4 of the committee, which are (quoting from the committee's report):

 "In contrast to the robust state of peer review at the NNSA laboratories, the state of design competition is not robust."

 "In order to exercise the full set of design skills necessary for an effective nuclear deterrent, the NNSA should develop and propose the first in what the committee envisions as a series of design competitions that include designing, engineering, building, and non-nuclear testing of a prototype. The non-nuclear components produced by Sandia should be integrated into the design and fabrication of the prototype. This should be done with the clear understanding that this prototype would not enter the stockpile."

 "The committee is deeply concerned about the state of design competition at all three laboratories. There have been no full design competitions for Nuclear Explosive Packages (NEPs) since the 1992 moratorium on the testing of nuclear explosions. The Department of Defense (DOD) has not asked for any fundamentally new warhead designs, and for a considerable time Congress limited work on new designs."

 However, as the committee makes clear in its report, their advised  new design ought to be inspired by real military requirements, arising from real  military doctrine.

 Furthermore, when the United states became a signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 it promised to: 1) work to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal; 2) work to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine; 3) cooperate in negotiating the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all nations. Naturally, the success of 3) would depend upon sustainable progress being made toward 1) and 2).

 In this context, it is difficult to see why the US would authorize its national laboratories to proceed toward a new nuclear weapon design, one that was connected to a new military mission, or one that was a "novel design to address a threat", as proposed by the committee in footnote 2, on p4 of its report.

  In fact, Congress's enabling legislation, to which the Committee, alludes (Public Law 112-239, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, Sec. 3144.), asks for guidance on peer review and design competition, as presently practiced at the nuclear weapons laboratories, but does not suggest that the committee consider the question of a new nuclear weapon design.

 It appears that by making its Recommendation #4 the committee has slipped into the field of politics. This may have been an honest blunder on the part of the committee, or a deliberate step in response to a portion of its mandate not included in its report; e.g., explicit instructions received from the NNSA, which was the "sponsor" of the study.

  In my opinion, this attempt by the committee to bolster one side of the ongoing political debate concerning the nature of the work performed by the nuclear weapons laboratories is ill-advised and diminishes the value of technical judgments contained in their report.

 For another sign of the committee's bias, see their remark on p52, under "Summary Comments: "Implementation of the above four recommendations would help ensure that the most important asset - a competent workforce with demonstrated skills and judgment - is being developed and maintained and that all stakeholders (including our adversaries) have confidence in that workforce."

  The committee's suggestion that "our adversaries" would be deterred if we develop new nuclear weapons designs hearkens back to the Cold war, and could only deter the building of trust between nations needed to move toward world-wide nuclear disarmament, as envisaged by the NPT.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

An article in the Los Alamos Monitor today described the latest developments in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Summarizing from this article:

"The Manhattan Project National Historical Park passes another milestone Tuesday when Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sign a memorandum of agreement formally establishing the Park."

"The Park is the culmination of 10 years of effort by the three communities included within its boundaries: Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash."

Concerning which I am moved to wonder:

What should the Manhattan Project National Historical Park memorialize and what should it attempt to teach  to future visitors?

1) That the march of science toward the discovery of new sources of energy, combined with unstoppable advances in military technology, have enabled the creation of ever more powerful weapons. Today, this unfortunate ongoing synergy makes it seem likely that the next global war will involve the destruction of larger civilian populations than before, and will create even more human suffering than before.

2) The Manhattan Project enabled the quick death by incineration and the slow death by radiation poisoning of ~200,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a triumph of science and technology since this slaughter occurred during just two air raids, in each of which only one bomb was dropped. Of course, we shouldn't forget the earlier deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in both Japan and Germany by allied bombing raids, in which thousands of conventional incendiary bombs were dropped. We continue today to justify these attacks by proclaiming that "war is hell" and that, anyway, it was the Japanese and the Germans who started it.

3) Moving beyond WW II, the Manhattan Project enabled the creation of a Balance of Terror which weighed on civilian psychologies during the Cold War (1950-1990) and under which the entire world continues to labor today. One has only to try to imagine the magnitude of the misery that the next global war will produce, perhaps involving nuclear weapons attacks on major population centers, to know the reason for this lack of martial fervor on the part of the world's nervous Neds and Nellies.

But, perhaps this is also a reason to think that wars of the future will be of limited extent and that global wars are a thing of the past. Albert Einstein himself said that he thought that this would have to be so if mankind was to survive; however, there is no guarantee that it will be so. Moreover, considering the history of politics and of warfare, it doesn't seem very likely.

Looking at this question more abstractly, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn pointed out in his last book, that the future is unknown, and may not be peaceful, unless politicians strive continually to maintain the peace. Or, as Karl Marx put it, ~150 years ago: the future may be one of socialism or barbarism, dependent upon politics and politicians.

Today, politics has led to the commissioning of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. But, will politicians be able to force inclusion in the Park of material describing the dark side of the nuclear fire unleashed at Los Alamos?

More concretely, how will future visitors to the  Manhattan Project National Historical Park feel about American  ingenuity if the barbarians of ISIS obtain a weapon akin to the one first built at Los Alamos in 1945? Will they be proud or will they be ashamed? Will they be gratified or will they be horrified?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

To MOX or Not to MOX

The Santa Fe New Mexican published an article today by Patrick Malone describing a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report entitled, "DOE Study Concludes MOX Facility More Expensive, Much Riskier than Disposing of Surplus Plutonium at New Mexico Repository." In this article, related concerns of some New Mexico citizens regarding the WIPP site were also discussed.

Considering the by now well-known options of whether to MOX or to bury, one can say with confidence that both the technical and political complexities of either option are large. However, an important part of the problem of changing now from MOX to burial is that the agreement previously arrived at with the Russians would have to be breached or renegotiated; namely, according to that agreement, Pu disposition must be irreversible, and underground storage, even with so-called down-blending, would not be so.

Moreover, it seems to me peculiar that the anti-nuclear groups, in their apparent zeal to thwart an advantage to the nuclear power industry provided by a continuation of the MOX program, would be willing  to promote underground burial of Pu when underground burial itself has two clear disadvantages: 1) burial, even of down-blended material, is reversible so that the Pu could be resurrected and reconstituted at some future time, perhaps for use in some future nuclear war; 2) burial of any radioactive and/or toxic chemical waste involves environmental hazards.

It's hard for me to understand their view but, to some, it seems that nuclear power is a clearer threat than nuclear weaponry.