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Scientists examine hurdles to US plutonium disposal plan

April 30, 2020 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Security and the availability of space at the U.S. government’s only underground nuclear waste repository are among the challenges identified by a group of scientists and other experts tasked by Congress to review the viability of a plan to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium at the desert location.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on Thursday released its final report on the plan, which would cost an estimated $18 billion over three decades to dilute a few dozen metric tons of plutonium and ship it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

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The main purpose of the work would be to satisfy a nonproliferation agreement with Russia.

The team of experts determined that the technical aspects of diluting the material, shipping it cross country and lowering it deep into the repository’s salt caverns is viable since individual steps in the process already have been successful.

However, the report states that all of the steps described in the plan have not been sequentially demonstrated from start to end, posing a risk since “even well-established capabilities run into unforeseen problems when integrated.” The report also notes that all the steps have been demonstrated at a prototype level, not at the scale federal officials are proposing.

Stashing the diluted plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant would “fundamentally change” the nature of the repository, the document states, and that raises social, environmental and technical questions that translate to vulnerabilities if left unanswered.

The experts are recommending that the Energy Department conduct an environmental review to consider the full effects of the plan on the repository, which plays a key role in the nation’s multibillion-dollar program to clean up Cold War-era waste from decades of nuclear research and bomb making.

S. Andrew Orrell, a member of the committee of experts, said Thursday during a webinar that available space at the repository should be treated as “a finite resource.”

Meeting or exceeding the statutory limits of the amount of waste allowed at the repository is easy to anticipate, he said, as there’s increasing competition for disposal space. He pointed to new waste expected to be generated when the federal government ramps up production of plutonium cores for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

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The group’s recommendations call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work with the Energy Department and New Mexico regulators on a mutual strategy for vetting the effects of the plan. They also push for the re-establishment an independent technical group to oversee the protection of public health and the environment on behalf of the public.

Since previous attempts to deal with the plutonium resulted in cost overruns at Savannah River, the report also suggested that the Energy Department take further action aimed at more transparency, such as making public the outcomes of safety reviews and cost estimates.

The review also determined that current security measures at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant may not be enough for the diluted plutonium. With sufficient mining expertise and resources, unauthorized people could retrieve the waste undetected from the repository, according to the experts.

As for the hurdles, the report states none threaten the plan’s technical viability and could be addressed through improved planning and consistent funding from Congress to avoid missed deadlines and increased costs.

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