Guest Opinions

Gary Petersen: Proposals on MOX and WIPP compound an uncertain path for Hanford’s nuclear waste

Hanford nuclear waste is truly a mixed bag (high-level, low-level, transuranic, greater-than-Class C). This includes medical wastes from hospitals, spent commercial fuel from Columbia Generating Station, and 124 Navy reactor cores from submarines and cruise missiles.

Hanford cleanup is technically challenging, yet cleanup has been moving ahead. However, nuclear waste is currently stuck at Hanford. Is Hanford an “interim storage” site without ever being declared so? In a word, “yes!”

One example of DOE’s ever changing signals and direction on final disposition of nuclear waste has to do with the large quantity of plutonium Hanford has already shipped to Savannah River.

The current option for disposing of our nation’s plutonium is to use a special facility to mix quantities of plutonium with other nuclear fuel to make mixed-oxide (mox) fuel that can be used in civilian reactors to produce power while using up the plutonium.

A 2000 international agreement with Russia identified this method for disposing the inventory of plutonium. By early 2007 the decision was made to construct a mox fuel plant at the Savannah River Site (SRS), in South Carolina. Construction is 70 percent complete, and some $4.5 billion has been spent.

After 15 years on the current path, DOE-Headquarters is now considering major/arbitrary changes to the final disposition of MOX, and stopping construction the mos facility at SRS!

DOE’s new path is considering ‘downblending’ (diluting) the weapons grade plutonium and adding it to waste going to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. DOE reports shutting down the SRS mox plant could cost a billion dollars.

WIPP is a massive underground repository built for permanent storage of transuranic waste (clothing, tools, and other materials contaminated with plutonium and other radionuclides). WIPP operations were suspended in 2014 by a fire and a small radiation release. WIPP remains closed, and there is no firm date for reopening.

Nevertheless DOE officials are talking about adding tons of downblended weapons-grade plutonium to the storage mix at WIPP. Doing this, according to one expert, would exceed WIPP’s capacity by 48 percent and would contain eight times the allowable radionuclide content (curies). Attempting to add downblended mox to WIPP raises a host of legal, regulatory and political questions; and disrupts current plans to move even the transuranic waste from Hanford once WIPP reopens.

Various consultant reports have compared the costs of completing the SRS mox plant with downblending mox for burial at WIPP, but the results are inconclusive on which option is less costly. What is clear, however, is that using mox as a fuel for nuclear power plants was studied and approved by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995, and it was embraced by the Clinton, Bush and (until recently) Obama administrations.

The Savannah River mox project was America’s response to the nonproliferation agreement with Russia (the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement) that was signed in 2000 and updated in 2010. Both countries committed to eliminating 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium by conversion to mox. 34 metric tons is enough to support 17,000 nuclear weapons!

Reversing course with the downblending/WIPP option is risky, given the problems that have shutdown WIPP and could result in further delays and additional costs. Terminating the SRS mox facility also raises the specter that Hanford plutonium already shipped to Savannah River for processing could be returned. South Carolina could well say, “We don’t want Hanford’s heavy metal plutonium if there is no mox facility; ship it back to them!”

The real risk is that by changing course at this point, Hanford could once again be left holding the bag. With a new administration in just 16 months, a ‘new’ DOE could decide that ‘downblending’ of plutonium and disposal in WIPP is also not the best option, leaving us with no pathway for Hanford’s plutonium.

So “yes,” Hanford continues to be an Undeclared Interim Storage site, which cancelling mox only compounds. Also, “no,” we don’t want the plutonium coming back to Hanford.

The best course for Hanford is to complete the mox facility at Savannah River.

Gary Petersen is Vice President of Federal Programs for the Tri-City Development Council.