Monday, February 27, 2012

NRC Studies NNSA and Its Nuke Labs

On Feb. 15, 2012, the National Research Council issued an report on the relationship between the quality of science and engineering practiced at the three nuclear weapons labs, and the management and oversight provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration and their three for-profit management contractors. This interesting report is entitled "Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories" and it was authored by the "Committee to Review the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the Department of Energy's National Security Laboratories - Phase 1; National Research Council of the National Academies."

In the following, I first quote from the study committee's report and then remark about the material being quoted.

Summary section; p2-3: "While the new contracts at LANL and LLNL clearly produced a noticeable level of staff frustration, staff members with whom the study committee interacted continued to show a strong commitment to  their work. Those who testified to the study committee about morale problems spoke primarily of the situation as it  existed at the time of the contract transitions, or of the subsequent layoffs at LLNL. When the study committee  examined the M&O contracts, it found very little that prescribes the management of S&E. Many of the bureaucratic frustrations raised at all levels appear to be either within the power of the Laboratories to address or driven by governance strategies above the Laboratory level: they are not traceable to the M&O contractor or the contracts themselves. It is indeed true that all three Labs have been under cost and funding pressure. In the case of LANL and LLNL that pressure is connected with the contract change; the costs of their re-competed contracts are significantly greater than the previous contracting arrangements. But this is due to the combined effect of increased contractor fees, pension obligations, and, in the case of LANL, a need to now pay New Mexico state taxes. Accounts that attribute the increased cost simply to award fees are not accurate. Some employees and stakeholders have been concerned that M&O contractors pursuing a fee might not act in the public interest, and this is an important issue. Therefore, the study committee discussed incentives with the three Laboratory directors and was convinced that their primary objective remains to manage the Laboratories in the public interest."

[Remark: Just prior to the contract change at LANL, in June, 2006, the then X-Div Head, Paul Hommert, promised an assembly of X-Div staff that the new contact would encourage a significant increase in the number of management personnel. Seemingly, he was not suggesting that inefficiency would be increasing under the new contract; rather, that there would be more opportunity for the financial betterment of individual staff members. He did not say, although it soon turned out to be the case, that management salaries, combined with "award fees", would greatly increase. For example, the LANL Director's total compensation for CY2005 was ~$350,000 while for CY2007 it increased to ~$1.5 million. Paul Hommert is now the President and Director of SNL.]

Summary section; p3: "An evolution of the Laboratory missions to “National Security Laboratories” is well underway. The absence of nuclear testing means that experimental validation of much of the S&E performed by the  Laboratories is not possible, and thereby lessening the intellectual attractiveness of the work for at least some  prospective employees. The expansion of the Laboratories’ mission into new non-nuclear areas offers the prospect of increasing the Laboratories’ appeal to top-quality scientists and engineers while also serving important national security missions. Thus, the quality of S&E, being preconditioned on attracting high-quality people, depends in the long run on successfully making this transition to National Security Laboratories. ................. . In a time of constrained budgets, broadening the mandate to a national security mission helps preserve S&E expertise by providing opportunities to work on problems posed by partner agencies. However, while such Work for Others (WFO) is very important for the future of S&E at the Laboratories, all three of the Laboratory directors were very clear that maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs."

[Remark: Presumably, the study committee means that nuclear weapons are still the core mission. However, to the extent that the Labs remain undiversified, then the future of the Labs is uncertain, since the future of the nuclear weapons industry is itself uncertain. See my earlier blogposts about this subject. Maintaining this industry at its present size seems counter-productive to the national interest, both politically and economically, and a clear violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, to which the US is a signatory and of which it is the number one promoter. Of course, there are significant numbers of traditionalists in Congress who continue to argue for more and better nuclear weapons. Those whose careers are bound up with the nuclear weapons industry abhor the idea of any reduction in spending for the care and feeding of these monsters of mass-destruction.]

Summary section; p3: "Recommendation 3-1:
The study committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs, and in that context consider endorsing and supporting in some way the evolution of the NNSA Laboratories to National Security Laboratories ................ ."

[Remark: The adopted language suggests that the study committee recognizes the mission of the Labs to be evolving away from nuclear weapons and recommends that Congress should also recognize this fact. Of course, there are those members of  Congress who are already working to promote such an evolution and those members who have long been opposing any such change; then there are those members of Congress who still have no particular view about this subject. Perhaps the study committee is also addressing the uncommitted members of Congress.]

Summary section; p6: "Recommendation 5-1:
The study committee recommends that the NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories recognize that safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point where they no longer need special attention. NNSA and Laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety, and security costs can be reduced, so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E activities."

[Remark: It is hard to believe that the management problems that emerged at LANL before, during, and just after the Wen Ho Lee affair have all disappeared. It seemed clear at the time that these problems led to the creation of the NNSA; i.e., as a means to intensify management oversight of the Labs in the areas of safety and security. During that period of media frenzy and rapid turnover in the office of the LANL Director, the DOE and the newly created NNSA, as well as the contractor UC, adopted some desperate measures. Perhaps their most unsuitable choice for LANL Director, Peter Nanos (2003-2005), was so shaken by those events that he angrily announced to an all hands meeting that LANL was run by a "culture of cowboys and buttheads", but that he would soon fix all those problems. Among his punishing measures were: a) Closing the Lab cafeteria until bad attitudes improved. Cowboys would have to bring their lunches from home. (But, this lasted just a few weeks.); b) Announcing that Lab retirees would no longer be allowed to retain a Lab office (except for Lab Fellows.) This contravened ~60 years of LANL tradition, but butt-heads were deemed unworthy of such a perk. (This Nanos-like policy continues to the present day.)]
Contracts section; Finding 2-1; p14: "There is widespread perception among Laboratory personnel that the new contracts are not to their benefit. On the other hand, the study committee found that the staff at LANL and LLNL, as well as SNL, remains highly motivated and enthusiastic about the S&E work at the Laboratories."

[Remark: Appendix 8 describes questions asked of staff and management at the Labs during interviews conducted by the study committee. Apparently, all of the evidence accumulated regarding employee motivation and satisfaction was anecdotal; i.e., no attempt was made to systematically survey employee attitudes.]

Research base and Evolution of the Mission section; p16: "It is for this reason that the study committee was pleased to see that a governance charter was established in June 2010 among the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Defense, plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. .......... The four-agency charter recognizes the value of the Laboratories to broad national security research activities, and that this broader work is synergistic with the Laboratories’ core nuclear weapons mission. The transition from nuclear-weapons-only Labs to national security Labs is well underway."

"Finding 3-1:
All three Laboratories and the NNSA have strongly emphasized that their core mission is to assure a reliable, safe, and secure nuclear weapons stockpile, and that all other research activities contribute to the development and maintenance of the scientific and engineering capabilities required to effectively execute this mission."

"Finding 3-2:
NNSA leadership has expressed a compelling vision for the Labs as national security Labs, maintaining nuclear weapons as the core mission while also contributing importantly to other national security areas."

"Recommendation 3-1:
The study committee recommends that Congress recognize that maintenance of the stockpile remains the core mission of the Labs, and in that context consider endorsing and supporting in some manner the evolution of the NNSA Laboratories to National Security Laboratories as described in the July 2010 four agency Governance Charter for an Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of DOE National Laboratories."

[Remark: covered already in remarks to the Summary section.]

Broken Relationship section; p22: "The management relationship between the Department of Energy, NNSA, and its national security Laboratories is defined by detailed contracts focused on assuring that the work of the Laboratory is conducted in an environmentally responsible, safe and secure manner, and that operations of the Laboratory maintain fiscal integrity. .......... . However, in an environment of broken trust, it carries a high risk that management will focus almost entirely on those contractual scoring criteria that account for the majority of the award fee, to the detriment of the science and engineering components of the mission."

[Remark: Evidently, in spite of the good intentions of current Lab Directors.]

p44: "Appendix 3: Review of Relevant Studies and Reports 1995–2010"

"Evolving and Persisting Issues in the Management of the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories"

"1. An unclear commitment to, and view of, the Laboratory mission;"

"3. Unclear roles and responsibilities assigned to DOE/NNSA headquarters and to the offices and programs included within the lab governance structure, ill-defined and duplicated lines of authority and oversight, including the failure of NNSA to achieve its intended independence;"

"4. Excessive number of reviews and oversight by external organizations, particularly by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board."

[Remark: (1) As the study committee points out, the Labs' mission has been changing. Hence, it seems unsurprising that Congress and the NNSA would have a hard time adjusting to an ever changing mission. More importantly, the mission will likely continue to change.]

[Remark: (3) Also understandable, considering the fact that the long-term mission of the Labs is a subject of ongoing controversy in Congress.]

[Remark: (4) In my opinion, the DNFSB performs a valuable role in maintaining contacts between Congress, NNSA, and the general public with regard to operations at the nuclear weapons labs. Major construction projects, such as the CMRR-NF at LANL are also subject to the NEPA process. Both the DNFSB and the NEPA process may be seen as inefficient by those wishing to create clarity of vision, or to expedite desired outcomes; however, they are both integral parts of a political process, mandated by Congress.]

p105-106: "Appendix 7: Selected Supporting Information; Section VII: Lab Productivity"

"Lab productivity can be measured in a number of ways, including the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published each year, and through the various awards earned by Lab scientists. Several of the Laboratories’ key achievements from recent years are highlighted below."

"Los Alamos National Laboratory:
In FY2011:
- LANL had 2,079 peer-reviewed publications, the highest since 2006 [and for a PhD staff of ~3000.]
- The Lab’s number of post-doctoral candidates was at an all-time high.
- LANL won three R&D 100 Awards.
-The E.O. Lawrence Award, which recognizes exceptional contributions in R&D that
support the DOE and its missions, was awarded to two LANL scientists.
LANL Peer Reviewed Publications:
                                    2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
LANL Pubs                   ?   1928   1780 1743     ?      2079 [a rate of ~0.6/year/PhD staff member]
LDRD Supported         ?     401   452   376       ?        ?  [a rate of ~2.0/year/LDRD supported staff member]
% due to LDRD             ?     21%  25%  22%        ?       ?

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
In FY2011:
-LLNL won two R&D 100 Awards.
-LLNL researchers received Secretary of Energy Achievement Awards.

LLNL Journal papers:
                                                2004 2005 2006 2007 2008  2009 2010
All LLNL articles               1158 1296 1237  1162    1097  1001  910

LDRD articles                       210   250   247   237     211       161   186

LDRD articles % of total  18%  19%  20%    20%      19%     16%  20%"

[Remark: This is a peculiar choice for a measure of general Lab productivity! Speaking from personal experience, during my 20 year tenure at LANL (X-Div) I authored ~40 publications which appeared in refereed journals, a rate of publication of 2 per year and, therefore, ~3x the average rate at LANL. However, I never received encouragement for these efforts; I certainly never received any reward in the form of a larger than average annual salary increase. Instead, larger than average salary increases went to those who performed nuclear weapons related work. This did not include publishing in the open literature; it usually did not include publication in the classified literature, either. Indeed, it was often the case that weaponeers and engineering staff would make disparaging remarks about those who "wasted time" publishing journal articles. It was said, in all seriousness, that "people who published journal articles should be fired." To be sure, this was an attitude that prevailed among staff in X-Div; but, in T-Div, which lived on LDRD funding, the attitude was entirely different. However, T-Div comprises only ~5% of PhD staff at the Lab. To repeat, this is a peculiar choice for a measure of general Lab productivity!]

[Remark: If Lab productivity within the last ~20 years were to be honestly assessed, then the rate of journal publication would have to be assigned only a negligible role. Rather, a dominant role should be assigned to developments in nuclear weapons codes, calculations simulating past nuclear weapons tests, experiments relating to nuclear weapons effects, recertification of stock-piled nuclear weapons designs, etc. Of course, funding for just this kind of work has made up more than half of the Labs' budget for the last ~20 years.]

[Remark: Perhaps the study committee has more of an eye on the Labs' future than on their past. Nevertheless, any misrepresentation of the kind of work being performed at the Labs, and of the environment that prevails there, would be a poor basis for formulating recommendations about the future. In particular, the academic style that once pervaded large parts of LANL and LLNL has departed with the not-for-profit contractor.]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The View From Los Alamos

The Obama Administration’s Federal Budget for FY 2013 was made public recently, with some fanfare ( ). Suggested total federal spending will be $3.8 trillion; of this amount,  $27.2 billion (0.72%) has been assigned to the Department of Energy (DOE) and of this, $11.5 billion will be expended by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA.) Quoting from the Budget:

“The Administration proposes $7.6 billion for Weapons Activities, an increase of $363 million or 5% above the FY 2012 enacted level, to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent as described in the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010. This Budget meets the goals of the NPR by continuing nuclear weapon life extension programs— such as upgrades to the W76 and B61 nuclear weapons—by improving and replacing aging facilities —such as increasing investments in funding for the Uranium Processing Facility [at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)]—and by sustaining the existing stockpile through underlying science, surveillance, and other support programs. However, to meet the NPR goals, but still stay within the discretionary spending caps,  NNSA and Department of Defense (DOD) are reducing and stretching out the schedule of several weapons life extension programs and are restructuring plans for maintaining plutonium capabilities [at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)]. As a result, the 2013 Budget provides $372 million less for Weapons Activities than the Administration projected in last year’s request and reported to the Congress in the Section 1251 Report on nuclear weapons plans.”

In keeping with what seem to be the Obama Administration’s views on the U. S. nuclear weapons industry, NNSA’s new budget also:

1) “Positions the Environmental Management program to meet its legally enforceable cleanup commitments at sites around the country.”

2) “Continues investments to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear weapons stockpile in support of the planned decrease in deployed U. S. and Russian weapons under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”

3) “Strengthens national security through funding for securing, disposing of, and detecting [of] nuclear and radiological material worldwide.”

Each of these three focus areas have important implications for ongoing programs at LANL, as well as for other U. S. nuclear weapons sites.

1) Overall, the EM program will take a small hit, with spending in FY 2013 of $5.650 billion, reduced from $5.711 billion in FY 2012, and below its FY 2011 level of $5.665 billion. However, at LANL, reductions are projected to be more extreme: this has been the subject of much recent agonizing among EM staff and managers at LANL. See my previous blogposts on this subject. Apparently, some “legally enforceable cleanup commitments” are seen as being more demanding than others; e.g., especially those at ORNL and at Hanford, Washington. Moreover, a business oriented New Mexico Governor, expressing  congenial attitudes toward the nuclear weapons industry in New Mexico, has agreed to delays in elements of the ongoing cleanup at LANL, even though the cleanup schedule (embodied in the 2005 Consent Order Decree) was legally binding on NNSA; the Governor chooses to not enforce parts of that Order.

As described in the Budget:

“The Budget includes $5.65 billion to ensure our Nation’s legacy of nuclear wastes from the production of weapons during the Cold War are processed, secured, and safely disposed of in a timely manner. The Environmental Management program continues to clean up waste and contamination, focusing on its legally enforceable regulatory commitments [but, with less emphasis at LANL]. The program’s cleanup actions include removing radioactive wastes from underground storage tanks, decontaminating and decommissioning old production facilities, and installing groundwater monitoring wells primarily at sites in Washington, South Carolina, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and New Mexico.” [Nevertheless, the new Secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department says that, by agreement with NNSA/LANS, no more regional monitoring wells will be drilled into the regional aquifer below LANL.]

2) Start-up of the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL (> $5 billion) has been delayed for five years. This enables NNSA to defer annual spending of ~$0.5 billion. However, NNSA must now reassign some plutonium related work to sites outside of LANL; this may involve necessary (perhaps, less costly) development of those other sites, and cancellation of the entire CMRR-NF project at LANL has now emerged as a distinct possibility. In the past, NNSA has threatened to remove all plutonium work from LANL if they were to ever meet with any check to their ambitious plans.

3) The “securing, disposing of, and detecting [of] nuclear and radiological material worldwide” is an important part of the Obama Administration’s non-proliferation initiative. Also, the disposition of surplus plutonium, taken from nuclear weapons that are being removed from stockpiles (U. S. as well as Russian) is an ongoing concern and the subject of ongoing negotiation between NNSA, Russia  and the U. S. communities that harbor nuclear weapons R&D facilities and/or factories.

“The Budget includes $2.5 billion, a $163 million or 7% increase above the FY 2012 enacted level, which reflects completion of accelerated efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, the President’s stated time-frame. This proposal fully funds Administration priorities to secure and dispose of nuclear material, to develop technologies to prevent, deter, or detect nuclear proliferation, and to implement international nonproliferation treaties, regulatory controls, and safeguards. DOE will have removed more than 4,300 kilograms—over 170 nuclear warheads worth—of vulnerable nuclear material from sites around the world by the end of 2013.”

With political realities firmly in mind, the Huffington Post opined ( ): “Obama's [Budget] proposal has almost no chance of being approved by Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives. Tough decisions on the budget likely will be put off until after the November elections, but the spending plan will certainly be used as a campaign document for Obama and a key target for Republicans.”

Finally, as an interesting sideline, yesterday, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging threats to U. S. national security interests, testimony was solicited from the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, and the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr.

This testimony was rich in detail, but in no degree alarming. Even so, during the ensuing period of questions and answers, several Republican Senators tried to insinuate degrees of alarm into the Congressional Record. In this regard, particularly patronizing and smarmy were the questions and statements of Sen. Lindsey Graham.

But, not to be outdone in the realm of insinuation was Sen Larry Inhofe who referred to a recent Associated Press report of studies being conducted by the Pentagon of future directions for nuclear arms control ( ) which, he said, were cause for his great personal concern.

Of course, Sen. Inhofe had fought long and hard to oppose passage of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians. In this, he was aided by ten former U. S. nuclear weapons laboratory directors who, at his request, signed a letter attesting to their grave concerns at restrictions being placed on the future R&D of U. S. nuclear weapons.

Never given to self-doubt, no one of these ten former nuke lab directors has ever publicly questioned his signature on that letter.

Nevertheless, and perhaps while attempting a bit to excuse himself, former LANL Dir. Sig Hecker has written (Physics Today, Readers Forum, February, 2012) that his signature on that letter only attested to his disagreement with “certain Treaty language.” And, he labeled as “misguided” my characterization of his support for that letter as deriving from a desire to promote the health of the nuclear weapons industry. From either his present perch at LANL (as a guest of LANS-LLC), or while in his current office at the Hoover Institute (a bastion of traditionalist thinking), Hecker considers the notion that he might harbor any such desire to be “nonsense”, to which he takes “strong exception.”

Admittedly, and to his credit, in the early 1990’s and while still LANL Dir., Hecker promoted extensive exchange programs with former Soviet nuclear weapons workers at Arzamas-15. These efforts may have helped to bridge chasms of mistrust, between American and Russian nuclear weapons workers, built up over decades of Cold War experience. Partly, for this and partly for his recently having obtained and disseminated information relating to the North Korean nuclear weapon program (apparently, at the behest of the North Koreans), Mr. Hecker, although not a physicist,  has been honored with fellowship status by the American Physical Society.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Pu Pits Made into MOX Fuel?

Yesterday, Friday, February 3, 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) hosted a public meeting at the Cities of Gold Conference Center, in Pojoaque, NM; the meeting was a necessary step in the NEPA process (National Environmental Policy Act.) According to rules set forth in NEPA legislation, NNSA is required to publicly explain its most recent plans to turn 7 tons of pit plutonium (Pu), declared surplus from the nuclear weapons program into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, to be burned in commercial nuclear power reactors; this would be in addition to the 34 tons tons of pit Pu and 6 tons of non-pit Pu declared surplus in 2003. (The term "pit plutonium" refers to Pu that has been fashioned into "pits", or triggers, for inclusion in nuclear weapons.) NNSA must also offer the public an opportunity to comment on its plans, and to suggest alternatives to these plans.

The meeting began with a ~1 hour long poster session, in which NNSA sketched out its surplus Pu to MOX plans, while NNSA experts were present to answer questions. This was followed by a ~1/2 hour long talk, on the same topic, by the NEPA Document Manager, S. McAlhaney. Perhaps the most gripping info to be conveyed during these presentations was that NNSA retains the option of sending all of its surplus Pu pits to LANL, where they will be transformed chemically into Pu oxide powder, for eventual shipment to Savannah River Site (SRS), there  to be converted into MOX fuel; i.e., 34 tons, or more, of Pu might be added to the large Pu inventory already present at LANL.

Nevertheless, given the time allotted, only a brief outline of the topic could be conveyed by the NNSA presenters. More information is available on the world-wide web, and I'll quote here relevant sections taken from the website of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), a trade group "representing the people and organizations of the global nuclear profession"; This material also gives a sense of the politics involved, and suggests the financial interests that may be in play.


“Disarmament will give rise to some 150-200 tons of weapons-grade plutonium (Pu). Weapons-grade plutonium has over 93% of the fissile isotope, Pu-239, and can be used, like reactor-grade Pu, in fuel for electricity production. Options considered for it included:

•           Immobilization with high-level waste - treating plutonium as waste,
•           Fabrication with uranium oxide as a MOX fuel for burning in existing reactors,
•           Fabrication with thorium as a fuel for existing Russian reactors,
•           Fueling fast-neutron reactors.

In 1994 the USA announced that 52.5 tons of its military plutonium stockpile was surplus to military requirements. This included non-pit material, and about 20 tons of it was of such quality that it might not be possible to utilize it for MOX.

In June 2000, the USA and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. The US undertook to pursue a dual track program (immobilization and MOX), self-funded, while the G-7 nations were to provide some US$ 2.5 billion to set up Russia's program. The latter was initially MOX-oriented for VVER reactors, the high cost being because this was not part of Russia's fuel cycle policy. A revised agreement signed in April 2010 allows the Russian plutonium to be used in BN-800 fast neutron reactors, and stretches the timeline to 2018. However, the G7 funding is not available on this basis and Russia will fund most of the program, with the USA contributing $400 million. The 68 tons of plutonium in both countries is equivalent to about 12,000 tons of natural uranium.

Weapons-grade plutonium entering the civil fuel cycle needs to be kept under very tight security, and there are some technical measures needed to achieve this.  MOX fuel made from it should degrade it so that Pu-239 cannot be extracted.  As it became clear that this could be achieved, the USA dropped its immobilization plans for most military plutonium, and this is reflected in the April 2010 agreement with Russia.

After environmental and safety reviews, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant at the DOE Savannah River site in South Carolina by Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster. Construction started in August 2007, by Shaw Areva MOX Services.  It will make about 1700 civil MOX fuel assemblies from depleted uranium and at least 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, unlike other MOX plants which use fresh reactor-grade plutonium having around one third non-fissile plutonium isotopes.  US reactors using the fuel will need to licensed for it.  Shaw Areva MOX Services is under contract to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which will own the plant, expected to be in operation from 2016.  The high cost of the plant - $3.5 billion plus $1.3 billion contingency and $183 million per year to operate - is justified on non-proliferation grounds.  Annual cost will be offset by revenue.

The following is a comment on this US situation from Dr C. Wolfe, former chairman of the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy's Plutonium Focus Area, whose task had been to advise on technology to enable the disposition of the excess plutonium: In discussion with Russia, ‘the USA often emphasized elaborate technology schemes to immobilize the plutonium in a proliferation-resistant state. These included grouts, synthetic rock, glass and co-disposal with spent nuclear fuel. The Russians were astounded. They couldn't believe that we were willing to take this material, which we had spent billions of dollars producing, and just throw it away. Not only throw it away, but spend a lot of additional money to get rid of it. The Russians saw it for what it was: a tremendous energy resource. The US eventually came to the same conclusion and opted for converting 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel to provide electrical energy for the US economy.’ (Aiken Standard 10/8/09)

In June 2005 the first four fuel assemblies with mixed oxide fuel made from US military plutonium (plus depleted uranium) started generating electricity in Duke Power's Catawba-1 nuclear power plant in South Carolina, on a trial basis. They incorporate 140 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. The plutonium was made into 2 tons of pellets at the Cadrache plant and then fabricated into fuel assemblies at the Melox plant in France. This trial was concluded satisfactorily.

In September 2007 the Department of Energy announced the release of a further 9 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads (cores, or pits). This will be made into MOX fuel at Savannah River. It brings to 61.5 tons the amount that is surplus to defense requirements and available for recycling into civil reactor fuel (leaving some 38 tons in the US nuclear weapons program.)

DOE is moving all its surplus non-pit weapons plutonium - reported to be 12.8 tons - to Savannah River by 2010. Once the material is consolidated there, the Department's plans for disposing of it involve the use of three Savannah River site facilities: the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (under construction) for 7.8 tons, the existing H-Canyon processing plant followed by a proposed new small-scale plutonium vitrification plant for the balance of 5.0 tons. The H-Canyon facility is the last such US plant able to treat used Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel and similar materials still operational.

H-Canyon dates from 1955 and originally recovered uranium, neptunium and plutonium from used military and research reactor HEU fuel. Since 1998 it has recovered HEU from degraded materials and spent fuel, to recycle it as Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). This program will continue to 2019.

Following the September 20007 addition of 9 tons of plutonium to the MOX program, NNSA decided that the Savannah River plant might also produce starter fuel for advanced fast reactors, part of the advanced fuel cycle initiative program.

Meanwhile the US has developed a 'spent fuel standard.' This specifies that plutonium should never be more accessible than if it were incorporated in spent fuel and thus protected from interference by strong gamma radiation. The plutonium immobilization plant, if and when it is eventually built, would thus incorporate the Pu in a version of Synroc ( artificial rock), and encase small discs of this in canisters of vitrified high-level radioactive waste. Alternatively, plutonium would be mixed with fission products and vitrified at the small plant proposed for Savannah River.

Europe's well-developed MOX capacity suggests that weapons plutonium could be disposed of relatively quickly. Input weapons-grade plutonium might need to be mixed with reactor grade material or blended with Pu-238, but using such MOX as 30% of the fuel in one third of the world's reactor capacity would remove about 15 tons of warhead plutonium per year. This would amount to burning 3000 warheads per year to produce 110 billion kW-hr of electricity. [Thus, the electrical energy needs of ~10 million homes could be satisfied for a year. But, ~10 large nuclear power reactors would probably be needed to burn so much nuclear fuel.]

Over 35 reactors in Europe are licensed to use MOX fuel, and 22 French reactors are licensed to use it as 30% of their fuel.

Russia intends to use its plutonium to fuel fast neutron reactors such as its BN-600 and BN-800, and later BREST at Beloyarsk.  The USA earlier insisted that it duplicate US plans to make it into MOX fuel for late-model conventional reactors, and for this Russia insisted that the USA pay all costs.  But after announcement of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in 2006 with its proposals for use of fast reactors, US objection to Russian plans disappeared. The 34 tons of plutonium initially available for MOX would have been enough for 1350 fuel assemblies for light-water reactors, but will now go into MOX fuel for BN-600 and BN-800 fast reactors - the former with one third MOX core and the latter with full MOX core, and accounting for most of the usage. The USA has agreed to contribute US$ 400 million towards the cost of this - much less than for the MOX option in VVER reactors.
Burning the plutonium in the BN-600 reactor is to commence in 2012, with the breeding blanket of depleted uranium removed and replaced by stainless steel reflector assemblies.  The BN-800 reactor now under construction will have a uranium blanket but will operated as a net plutonium consumer for the life of the disposition project.  Jointly they are expected to burn 1.5 tons of this weapons plutonium per year. The USA and Russia intend to continue cooperative development of a gas-cooled high-temperature reactor (GT-MHR) in Russia 'which may create additional possibilities for speeding up plutonium disposition from about 2015.

The 2000 US-Russian agreement precludes the reprocessing of MOX fuel using military plutonium if the plutonium is separated out, so such reprocessing will be either to give plutonium plus uranium or plus actinides.  Russia is said to have 40 tons of separated reactor-grade plutonium already from reprocessed fuel.”

Next, ~1  1/2 hours were given over to public comments, with each member of the public allowed 4 minutes to speak. Remarks were recorded both electronically and by stenographer.

Two members of the public criticized the Pu to MOX plan as being very unwise and volunteered specific alternatives: T. Mello suggested that Pu pits be “filled with wire and then buried”; J. Coghlan thought that the Pu pits should be “chopped up and the pieces buried.” But, it seems that these comments were made tongue-in- cheek.

An impassioned hour-long condemnation of the nuclear weapons program, and the nuclear power industry, was then presented by C. Montaño, aided by a group of 15 like-minded and “shy” individuals. However, rather than attempting to summarize these interesting and poetic views, I'll quote similar thoughts taken from the website of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NRIS), an advocacy group opposed to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power; (In contrast to C. Montaño, the NIRS does not go so far as to condemn all forms of radiation; viz., without the prodigious amounts of radiation coming to us from the sun, life on planet earth would probably be impossible.)


“The Department of Energy’s (DOE) decision to mix 34 or more metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons with depleted uranium into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors is a direct reversal of decades-old U.S. policy aimed toward non-proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. A plutonium fuel program will increase the risks of nuclear terrorism and the international proliferation of plutonium.

A decision on the part of the U.S. government to engage in a large scale civilian plutonium program would encourage the continuation of the messy and dangerous reprocessing programs in Europe and Japan. A plutonium fuel program would destroy any leverage the U.S. might have to influence non-weapons states from creating their own civilian reprocessing programs.”


“The U.S. plutonium fuel program would create facilities and financial interests based exclusively upon the use and spread of plutonium. The corporation most involved in a potential U.S. plutonium fuel program is the French reprocessing company Cogema. This company has teamed up with Duke Power and Virginia Power to create a new consortium, and would be responsible for the storage, safeguarding, and some processing of weapons-grade plutonium.

This industry structure builds an economy upon the false and dangerous notion that plutonium is an asset. The involvement of these corporations places the responsibility of these deadly materials in the hands of corporate entities whose single goal is the generation of profits.”


“Reprocessing is the chemical process of separating plutonium and uranium from other fission products in the irradiated fuel from a nuclear reactor. The separated materials can then be made into a mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) which is reused in a reactor. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has had a policy of not allowing reprocessing, and instead treating the nuclear fission products as the high-level atomic waste it is. This policy is based primarily on non-proliferation grounds, and is met to discourage countries from engaging in the separation of plutonium and uranium—since these substances—once separated—can also be used to build nuclear weapons.

Even now, the Department of Energy says that its proposed MOX program will only be a "once-through" program, meaning that once the plutonium from nuclear weapons has been processed into MOX and used in civilian reactors, no further reprocessing would be allowed. But the industries involved in the plutonium fuel program will have a vested interest in the possibility of a U.S. commercial reprocessing industry as part of waste management policy. And the necessary infrastructure—including construction of all the need facilities—would be in place.”


“In recent years the US has seen a surge in devastating terrorist activities on its own soil. The knowledge necessary to create a nuclear weapon is available to the public. The best policy toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism is to ensure that the materials necessary to make a nuclear bomb cannot be obtained. The US plutonium fuel program would increase the risks of theft of weapons grade plutonium. The process of fabricating plutonium fuel involves the handling of bulk amounts of plutonium. This process makes accurate accounting of plutonium extremely difficult, which leaves measuring disparities that could be an open invitation for diversion of the plutonium for weapons purposes. In some cases it may be impossible to know whether plutonium has been stolen or is simply left in residues at processing facilities without an expensive clean-out. Once the plutonium fuel has been made, it would then have to be transported to commercial reactors where safeguarding of that plutonium will be the responsibility of the utility. This also makes the plutonium vulnerable to theft or diversion.

Irradiating weapons plutonium in a reactor does not make the plutonium unusable for weapons purposes. The U.S. government proved with a nuclear test in 1962 that so-called ‘reactor grade’ plutonium can be used in nuclear bombs. Using weapons plutonium in reactors does not effectively safeguard plutonium, and it undermines disarmament efforts.”


“A U.S. plutonium fuel program would send a clear signal to other countries: the U.S. government approves of separated plutonium fuel programs. This would undercut the government's ability to discourage reprocessing in other countries and may encourage other countries to pursue plutonium programs. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum explained the situation clearly in a memorandum to former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary:

‘U.S. decisions on plutonium disposition are inextricably linked with U.S. efforts to reduce stockpiles as well as limit the use of plutonium worldwide. The multi-decade institutionalization of plutonium use in US commercial reactors would set a very damaging precedent for US non-proliferation policy.’

The alternative, to encase the plutonium in ceramics or glass (immobilization), will not affect the government's non-proliferation goals, nor encourage civilian reprocessing in the U.S. or elsewhere. Immobilizing plutonium will send the proper signal that plutonium is a dangerous waste and needs to be treated as such.”