Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Burn Pu239 but Bury U233?

The New York Times reported today on a DOE plan to dispose of yet another detritus from the US nuclear weapons program; viz., ~2 tons of weapons grade U233. This dangerous fissile material had been created deliberately in specially designed nuclear reactors, and collected over decades during the course of the cold-war, primarily,in order to fuel new types of nuclear weapons. The production cost of this U233 has been estimated to be >$5 billion.

Currently, the DOE plans to dispose of this surplus U233 by burying it, in pits dug at the Nevada Test Site. Thus, the DOE's present plan for disposing of surplus U233 differs from their preferred method for disposing of surplus Pu239; e.g., by forming the surplus Pu into MOX fuel, and burning it in modified nuclear reactors, as described by DOE in a recent publication (Draft Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, July, 2012), and in several recent public meetings.

However, the DOE plan to dispose of surplus U233 by burial is being questioned by a least one expert. In a study by Robert Alvarez of the Instutute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org), dated Aug. 31, 2012, and entitled "Managing the U233 Stockpile of the US", possible complications attending such a plan are described. In particular, Alvarez points out that the chance that buried U233 could be unearthed by terrorists and formed into a crude nuclear weapon does not seem to be remote.

In fact, the DOE has said that their preferred plan for disposing of surplus Pu239 by burning it in nuclear reactors is the only way to ensure that it cannot be used to build more nuclear weapons.

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