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: