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: