Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nix to MOX?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012; Northern New Mexico College, in Espanola, NM:

DOE/NNSA hosted another forum to describe its proposed schemes to dispose of 13.1 metric tons (MT) of plutonium (Pu), declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program, and to afford the general public a further opportunity to express its views on this subject. (The disposition of 34 MT, previously declared surplus, is not being reconsidered, at this time.)

DOE prefers to burn the surplus Pu, after first converting it into MOX fuel, in specially fitted nuclear power reactors, instead of  burying it in some immobilized form; i.e., from  which the recovery of weapons grade Pu would be impractical or infeasible. Various members of the general public, burdened by a strong bias against nuclear power for energy production, have objected to this proposal. They say that it should be possible instead to bury the surplus Pu, preferably at the site where the nuclear weapons are now being stored, or will be decommissioned; i.e., at least, for the 7.1 MT which is in the form of Pu pits.

5:30PM – 6:30PM /
Several poster displays were presented by DOE/NNSA and its contractors, describing aspects of their proposed schemes. DOE/NNSA and contractor experts were present to answer questions posed by members of the public. The posters were similar to those presented at the previous forum in this series (August 21, 2012 in Los Alamos, NM; see my blogpost dated August 22, 2012, entitled “MOX Mysteries: Better to Bury than to Burn?”), with the exception of a poster presented by Muon, Inc, a private, for-profit, company which is proposing a “new” approach to the disposition of surplus Pu; i.e., the so-called accelerator-based transmutation of radioactive waste.

6:30PM – 7:00PM /
A formal talk was presented by NEPA process document manager S. McAlhany describing DOE/NNSA’s proposed schemes for disposing of Pu declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program. This was identical to the talk by S McAlhany presented at the previous forum in this series..

7:00PM – 8:15PM /
The public was offered a new opportunity to present its views on DOE/NNSA’s  proposed schemes. Eighteen members of the public signed up to speak.

Each member of the public was allowed 4 minutes to speak at a microphone in front of the assembled crowd. Holmes Brown, an experienced facilitator hired by DOE/NNSA, attempted to enforce this rule.

The first two speakers were LANL staff members J Martz and D Clark. Both expressed their approval of DOE/NNSA’s proposals and gave it as their opinion that LANL was fully able to carry out safely the tasks being proposed.

The next two speakers were DOE would-be contractors, C Bowman and R Johnson, who described a new method for disposing of surplus Pu; viz., by the accelerator-based transmutation of radioactive waste. This process is being proposed to DOE by a private, for-profit, company (Muons, Inc), but is not a part of DOE/NNSA’s presently proposed schemes for the disposition of Pu, declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program.

The next eight speakers were local area citizens who all expressed strongly negative opinions about LANL, DOE/NNSA, and the schemes being proposed for the disposition of  Pu, declared surplus from the US nuclear weapons program. Most of these speakers said that they were indeed in favor of the retirement of nuclear weapons from the US arsenal of nuclear weapons, but did not believe that the schemes being proposed by DOE/NNSA were reasonable or necessary. Instead, they thought that disposal of the Pu from these retired nuclear weapons should take place at the decommissioning site, by some form of direct burial. They were particularly opposed to the transportation of large amounts of Pu between the DOE’s nuclear weapons sites; e.g.,  over the nation’s highways, or by rail, or air, since this would expose it to the risk of unlawful diversion, and the dispersion into the environment as a result of accident. They were unconvinced that the burning of MOX fuel might not produce large amounts of high level nuclear waste which would present its own disposition problem.

The next speaker, G Maestas, spoke about his great esteem for LANL, and for the US nuclear weapons program; e.g., especially the role played by LANL in WW II, which he fervently believes to have been of the utmost importance. He also stated emphatically that there is absolutely no radiation hazard to the general public from LANL operations. He said that he attaches the greatest value to his grand children and would be the first one to loudly object if he thought that there were any such threat to their well-being. He notes, too, that his grand father and his great-grand father both lived happily in northern NM, throughout their lives. G Maestas, a former LANL management employee, is a well-known advocate for the economic benefits that LANL brings to the local northern NM community; i.e., albeit, only to a limited number of members of that local community.

The next five speakers expressed other very negative views about the DOE/NNSA proposals. One speaker said that he thought the number of options being proposed was too limited, and that DOE/NNSA must include at least ~20 options in order to be considered diligent, and/or to be taken seriously by himself, and by the general public.

In summary:

Of the 13 speakers expressing negative views about DOE/NNSA and its proposals, six were Santa Clara Pueblo members who talked about the threat that LANL operations present to the lives of Pueblo members, and to the survival of Pueblo people. The other seven speakers were local citizens also aggrieved by LANL/DOE/NNSA operations; e.g., especially by the danger that these operations present to the local environment and to local populations.

The contrast between the critical views expressed by the one former and two current LANL employees (very positive), and by the 13 speakers with no current or previous LANL affiliation (very negative), was stark. (The two speakers representing Muon, Inc expressed uncritical views since they were present at the forum only as would-be contractors, seeking economic support from DOE for their technical proposal.)

An obvious difference between those expressing positive views about LANL, and those expressing negative views, is the level of their economic advantage; i.e., those receiving significant economic advantage from their personal association with LANL expressed positive views about LANL, and those lacking economic advantage because of a lack of personal association with LANL expressed negative views. There seem to be many more negative views expressed than positive views, perhaps because there are many fewer members of the general public receiving economic advantage from their association with LANL than not. There is some indication of this difference of views regarding LANL among the local citizenry contained in a survey which I conducted a few years ago. See my blogpost of Dec 21, 2009 entitled “Community Survey Report for Northern New Mexico.”
A second difference between the two groups of speakers, holding nearly opposite opinions regarding LANL, might be the result of their difference in world-view. One the one hand, pro-LANL views were expressed by the two, very technically oriented, current LANL staff members. These reflected a view of the world based on numbers and on “accepted”, although often incompletely proven, scientific theories. On the other hand, there were the anti-LANL views expressed by an almost exclusively non-technical group of local citizens. These reflected a view of the world based on feelings and on cultural, or ancestral, wisdom. The two pro-LANL speakers referred mostly to technical matters, using technical language; the anti-LANL speakers addressed mostly personal, family, or cultural matters, and used emotive language while invoking subjective criteria. The sole pro-LANL, former LANL, employee referred partly to a technical matter, the alleged pollution of the local environment by LANL, but addressed this concern with an emotive expression; i.e., he denied completely the existence of any pollution. He too referred to family and cultural matters, but as a means of justifying his pro-LANL orientation.

Interestingly, the question of whether or not the burning of surplus Pu converted into MOX fuel, in specially fitted nuclear reactors, would result in less pollution of the environment than the principal recognized alternatives of coal, oil, and natural gas fired power plants, for the same amount of power generated, and by how much, was not discussed at this forum. In fact, during the poster presentation, I asked this question of one of the DOE/NNSA experts, but was told that the answer was unknown to that particular expert.

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