This report is the product of a congressional request1 to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for an evaluation of the general viability of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s (DOE-NNSA’s2) conceptual plans for disposing of 34 metric tons (MT) of surplus plutonium3 in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a deep geologic repository near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Congress asked the National Academies to evaluate two issues:
- DOE-NNSA’s plans to ship, receive, and emplace surplus plutonium in WIPP; and
- DOE-NNSA’s understanding of the impacts of these plans on WIPP and WIPP-bound waste streams.
This report, the first of two to be issued during this study, provides a preliminary assessment of the general viability of DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans, focusing on some of the barriers to their implementation. The second report, to be issued after the committee receives additional planning documents from DOE-NNSA,4 will address the statement of task in its entirety (see Box 1 in Chapter 1).
Disposition of U.S. Surplus Plutonium
The U.S. government plans to disposition 34 MT of surplus weapons-grade plutonium under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), which was signed by the United States and the Russian Federation in 2000 and amended in 2010, and the Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy issued by President Clinton in 1993 (DOS 2000, 2010; DOE 2018d).5,6 The PMDA defines disposition requirements and methods to ensure the United States and the Russian Federation could not reintroduce surplus plutonium into the arsenals from which they came (i.e., diversion). The PMDA requirements also reduce the risk of access by unauthorized parties (i.e., theft) and strengthen arms control commitments. The amended PMDA in 2010 supersedes the earlier agreement and commits both countries to integrate surplus
1 The mandate appears in House Report 114-532, Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 2017.
2 The committee refers to DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration as “DOE-NNSA,” DOE’s Office of Environmental Management as “DOE-EM,” and to the broader Department of Energy as “DOE.”
3 Defined by DOE as plutonium that “has no identified programmatic use and does not fall into one of the national security reserves.” DOE-NNSA is responsible for managing all U.S. surplus plutonium and DOE-EM is responsible for disposing of any quantities declared as waste.
4 Release of these planning documents to the committee has been delayed by recent legal actions between South Carolina and DOE.
5 One metric ton (MT), or 1000 kg, is equivalent to 2,205 pounds (lbs) or 1.1 U.S. tons.
6 Dispositioning, disposal and storage are used throughout this report with the following definitions, as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA 2016): Dispositioning: Consigning of, or arrangements for the consigning of, radioactive waste for some specified (interim or final) destination, for example for the purpose of processing, disposal or storage. Disposal: Emplacement of waste in an appropriate facility without the intention of retrieval. Storage: The holding of radioactive sources, radioactive material, spent fuel or radioactive waste in a facility that provides for their/its containment, with the intention of retrieval.
plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel7 followed by irradiation. Immobilization of the plutonium is not a specified disposition method in the amended PMDA. Section 3.3 of this report discusses the PMDA and its current status in more detail.
DOE-NNSA issued a Record of Decision in 2000 to disposition weapons grade surplus plutonium by incorporating it into MOX reactor fuel followed by irradiation in commercial nuclear reactors. The United States began construction of a facility to manufacture MOX fuel, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (“MOX plant”), at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina in 2007. Construction has encountered substantial schedule delays and cost overruns. The Obama administration proposed to stop construction of this facility and instead use a “dilute and dispose process” to disposition this surplus plutonium in 2014. The Trump administration announced plans to cancel the MOX plant in May 2018 and declared the dilute and dispose process as the program of record.8 The DOE issued a termination of the contract with CB&I AREVA MOX Services, the contractor managing the MOX program, in early October 2018 following several months of legal challenges between the state of South Carolina and the DOE.
DOE-NNSA asserts that through chemical (dilution) and physical (repository emplacement) barriers the end state of the dilute and dispose process would meet the intent of the PMDA for preventing plutonium recovery and reuse. The “dilute” portion of the dilute and dispose process entails the oxidization of surplus plutonium followed by dry blending with an adulterant to dilute the plutonium-239 content. Details of the adulterant composition and processing steps are classified. The “dispose” portion of the plan involves packaging, characterizing, and transporting the blended material to WIPP for final emplacement. The dilute and dispose process is not currently a PMDA-approved method for dispositioning U.S. surplus plutonium.
DOE-NNSA currently estimates that it will take 31 years to dilute and dispose of all 34 MT of surplus U.S. plutonium, beginning with conceptual process design in 2018 and ending with completion of emplacement of diluted plutonium at WIPP in 2049. Four DOE sites would be involved in implementing this process: the Pantex Plant in Texas, where 26.2 MT of surplus plutonium pits are stored; Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, where the plutonium metal will be oxidized; Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, where the oxidized plutonium will be diluted and packaged for transport and disposal; and WIPP in New Mexico, where the diluted plutonium will be emplaced in the repository. An additional 7.8 MT of non-pit surplus plutonium stored in other locations throughout the DOE complex are also part of DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans and will be oxidized at LANL (if needed), diluted at SRS, and disposed of in WIPP.
The committee’s preliminary assessment produced a set of findings, conclusions, and recommendations, provided below.
CONCLUSION 1: The dilute and dispose process has been demonstrated at a small scale by DOE-EM as it begins to process 6 MT of surplus plutonium, a quantity separate from the 34 MT associated with the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA). The committee agrees with earlier assessments that the technical complexity of the dilute and dispose process is lower than that of the construction of a MOX fuel option. Because of lack of information, the committee makes no judgment in this interim report on the DOE’s ability and the associated risks of scaling up the current infrastructure and processes to address the 34 MT. The committee has, however, identified several barriers that will need to be addressed
7 MOX fuel contains plutonium and uranium, both in oxide form.
8 On May 10, 2018, Secretary Perry issued a letter to Congress announcing DOE’s decision to cancel the MOX plant and move to the dilute and dispose option for disposal of surplus plutonium citing a cost estimate that showed the cost of dilute and dispose was less than half of the projected cost of the MOX option (Demarest 2018). The authority for Secretary Perry to take such action was granted through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 P.L. 115-91.
by DOE-NNSA and others before the dilute and dispose conceptual plans can be implemented to support U.S. commitments under the PMDA.
FINDING 1: DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose option, if implemented, is likely to face several challenges during its inception and lifetime of over three decades. These include potential changes to the intended purpose, size, operations, and lifetime of WIPP; the lack of availability of other suitable repositories for disposing of diluted plutonium (i.e., Yucca Mountain or elsewhere); state, tribal, and local acceptance of diluted and packaged plutonium; transportation, and permanent disposal operations; changes in U.S. nuclear weapons programs (e.g., new pit production and associated waste streams); and funding availability. These challenges could lead to technological and/or programmatic changes to the current conceptual plans in order to achieve the DOE-NNSA’s mission to dispose of 34 MT of surplus plutonium in an efficient, safe, and secure manner.
FINDING 2: The committee identified the following three barriers to implementation of DOE-NNSA’s current conceptual plans:
- Insufficient current statutory and current physical capacity within WIPP for disposal of 34 MT of diluted plutonium throughout the lifetime of the dilute and dispose project.
- Unclear strategy for development of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) environmental impact statement for disposing of 34 MT of surplus plutonium in WIPP using the dilute and dispose process.
- Lack of Russian Federation approval for dispositioning 34 MT of surplus plutonium using the dilute and dispose process to meet the requirements of the PMDA.
RECOMMENDATION 1: The remaining statutory capacity as defined in the Waste Isolation Pilot Land Withdrawal Act (P.L. 102-579, as amended by P.L. 104-201; LWA) and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) permit at WIPP should be treated as a valuable and limited resource by DOE. DOE-EM and the Carlsbad Field Office should modify their current emplacement planning process to allow for guaranteed long-term allocation of disposal capacity for waste streams of highest priority to DOE.
FINDING 3: Shifting the plutonium disposition program of record to the dilute and dispose option will require detailed discussions between DOE and the states of New Mexico and South Carolina. Accommodating 34 MT of diluted plutonium and other planned and/or potential future DOE waste streams in WIPP will necessitate changes to state permits and possibly legislation requiring state cooperation, including public participation.
FINDING 4: DOE will need to determine which laws, regulations, and orders are applicable to the proposed dilute and dispose process and develop and implement a strategy to work with regulators to obtain the necessary changes.
RECOMMENDATION 2: DOE-NNSA should engage New Mexico and South Carolina as well as their congressional delegations prior to the public engagement required by the National Environmental Policy Act process to assess prospects for successfully amending the existing legal agreements to allow for the dilution and packaging of 34 MT of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site and its disposal in WIPP.
FINDING 5: The dilute and dispose option for surplus plutonium disposition is neither recognized nor approved by the existing PMDA. Irradiated MOX fuel containing the surplus plutonium is the currently approved disposition option for plutonium within the PMDA and is an option that is consistent with the standard established with commercial spent fuel (i.e., that the plutonium would be as inaccessible for recovery for reuse in weapons by the host state as if it were in spent fuel, or the “spent fuel standard”). Disposition options that use chemical barriers alone, such as dilution or combining plutonium with other
elements, do not meet this standard. The physical barrier of deep geologic disposal is offered by the DOE-NNSA as a necessary barrier to meet the intent of the PMDA. However, emplacement of diluted plutonium in WIPP remains recoverable by United States.
FINDING 6: Based on limited information regarding the NEPA strategy for the dilute and dispose program and the fact that DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose plans derive from a similar program managed by DOE-EM to dilute and dispose of 6 MT of surplus plutonium, the committee finds that a full programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) of the dilute and dispose option, encompassing all sites, transportation, and activities involved in the dilute and dispose process rather than a supplemental EIS would help ensure the proper scope and scale of the proposed change. As much as 42.2 MT of surplus plutonium is being considered for disposal at WIPP, including 34 MT related to the PMDA. This represents the majority of the United States’ declared excess plutonium and its processing would stress the sites, transportation, and activities well beyond the current disposition plans for 6 MT.
FINDING 7: DOE-NNSA does not have a well developed public outreach plan for the host sites for processes or for the transportation corridor states and tribes (i.e., the current plan is to follow public input requirements defined by NEPA) for the dilute and dispose program.
CONCLUSION 2: Public trust will need to be developed and maintained throughout the lifetime of the dilute and dispose program because several permit modifications and potential changes to legislation will be required. These changes will require assuring the regulators and the public of the safety and security of the DOE plans. This is particularly challenging for the dilute and dispose program because of several factors: security classification of aspects of the planning (constituents of the adulterant, processing steps, security and safeguards assessments); early stage of program development with changes likely to occur as more information is known; and potential impacts that cross many states and DOE sites.
RECOMMENDATION 3: If the dilute and dispose option becomes the program of record, the committee strongly suggests that DOE consider re-initiating the Environmental Evaluation Group, as an independent technical review organization that can represent the concerns of the state of New Mexico, throughout the lifetime of the dilute and dispose program. Members of the technical review organization would need to be technically qualified to address the health and safety issues and a subset would need to have clearances or access authorizations that will allow thorough review of classified plans as they evolve and provide assessments of the dilute and dispose process.
RECOMMENDATION 4: In addition to and separate from the independent review organization representing the State of New Mexico described in Recommendation 3, periodic classified reviews for Congress by a team of independent technical experts should be required until classified aspects of the dilute and dispose plan, including the safety and security plans, are completed and implemented. Since DOE’s plans and decisions are expected to mature and evolve, these independent reviews would provide a mechanism to review classified aspects of the program and would improve public trust in those decisions.
The committee’s preliminary assessment also produced three sets of follow-up questions directed primarily to DOE-NNSA. In the final report, the committee may revisit and modify the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in this Interim Report based on DOE-NNSA’s answers to these questions.
- WIPP Disposal Capacity: Does DOE-NNSA agree that WIPP’s current statutory and physical disposal capacity is a barrier to implementation of the dilute and dispose process for dispositioning 34 MT of surplus plutonium? If not, what data and analyses are DOE-NNSA using to support its alternative conclusion? If so, what are DOE-NNSA and the larger DOE planning or doing to ensure that there is available repository space to dispose of all 34 MT of diluted surplus plutonium and to avoid surface storage of diluted plutonium? What, if any, legal or legislative changes are required to ensure
the availability of disposal space in WIPP for disposing of 34 MT of surplus plutonium? If WIPP becomes temporarily unavailable due to an unforeseen closure, what are the plans for the dilute and dispose program? How does the conceptual plan change if permit modifications (i.e., changes to the calculation of the volume of record, physical expansion of WIPP, or life extension of WIPP) are not approved?
- Environmental Impact Statements (EISs): How many and what kinds of environmental impact statements are currently associated with the dilute and dispose program? Which ones will need to be updated? And how will they be updated (i.e., supplemental EIS versus programmatic EIS)? What are the timeframes for completing these updates? Regardless of the type of EIS prepared, what are DOE-NNSA’s plans to incorporate transportation safety and security risks into the NEPA process?
- WIPP Compliance: Will the disposal of 34 MT of diluted plutonium in WIPP require changes to WIPP’s Provisional Compliance Recertification Application or to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certification of WIPP? If so, what changes will be required, and how difficult (time, costs) will those changes be to implement? What is the timeframe for starting the application process?