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Alternatives Needed for Plutonium Disposal

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The Obama administration has taken the correct approach to the U.S. Dept. of Energy's $7.7-billion Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., which is to freeze the project at its current stage. The delays are endless, the dollars are flying out the window at an alarming rate, and there's no reliable way of knowing whether the end goal can be achieved. That could be said of other federal public works, but none is

as potentially costly as this one. One big concern is that MOX fuel, which is made from weapons-grade plutonium, has never been used on a commercial basis. In other words, there is no proven market yet for the end product, a key assumption of the project.

Meanwhile, each day of construction costs taxpayers $1.1 million, according to DOE officials. As noted by ENR Southeast Editor Scott Judy, for an administration under pressure to rein in federal spending, the decision to seek other alternatives for disposing of the material was a relatively easy call.

South Carolina's congressional representatives don't want the project halted while alternatives to the current project, now $3 billion over budget and only 60% complete, are sorted through. Delays, some warn, could violate international pacts aimed at controlling nuclear material. Also troubling are the comments last year from Kelly Trice, president of Shaw AREVA MOX Services, which is the DOE's contractor at the site. His company's subsidiary, AREVA NP, is the department's wholesaler for the hoped-for fuel sales.

Is Hope Justified?

Trice told the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a hearing last August that the department and AREVA NP are looking for customers for the MOX fuel and that demand is strong. The NRC would have to assist in the shipping, transport and licensing in order to be able to use the fuel. Significantly, in response to a question, Trice explained that nuclear reactors would have to be modified in order to be able to use the nuclear fuel produced by the fabrication facility, with the NRC footing the bill.

Perhaps there is a better idea.

One alternative floated by Tom Clements, of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, is to dispose of the weapons-grade plutonium by immobilizing the plutonium in existing high-level waste to create a theft-detering radiation barrier. Then, according to Clements, contractors could place the combined materials in a secure geologic repository. Finding out whether that would work, however, would take more research.

The time has passed when public works, including ones that involve delicate environmental issues and nuclear security, can be run billions of dollars over budget with huge, unresolved feasibility issues. Without a halt to the current project, what urgent incentive is there to come up with a new plan?

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