The release of several key DOE-NNSA dilute and dispose planning documents to the committee has been delayed due to recent legal actions between the State of South Carolina and DOE.1 These documents, which include DOE-NNSA’s life-cycle cost estimates and other planning details, an initial assessment of the long-term performance assessment of emplacing 34 MT of diluted plutonium in WIPP, newly updated system planning documents, and a criticality safety assessment of the emplaced waste are needed by the committee to fully address the committee’s tasking of assessing the viability of DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans. Consequently, in this Interim Report the committee is able to provide only a preliminary assessment which focuses on potential barriers to implementation of DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans.
The committee’s preliminary assessment produced seven findings, two conclusions, and four recommendations, and a series of follow-up questions directed primarily at DOE-NNSA. The findings, conclusions, recommendations and questions are presented and discussed in this section.
The dilute and dispose process is not technically challenging; in fact, the process has already been implemented at a small scale to disposition up to 6 MT of non-pit plutonium in WIPP (DOE 2016d, also see Figure 2-1 and Section 3.2 for additional discussion) (Forinash 2017).2 DOE-NNSA is planning to build on this previous experience and infrastructure to scale-up existing processes and achieve the higher throughputs needed to dispose of the additional 34 MT of surplus plutonium (see Figure 2-5).
Nevertheless, DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose process faces a number of barriers, some of which are discussed in subsequent sections of this report. The process, if implemented, would involve a large number of sites, organizations, and stakeholders. DOE-NNSA must scale-up its prototypic systems and storage
1 South Carolina filed a lawsuit against DOE over its decision to stop work on the MOX Plant at Savannah River. A U.S. District Court issued a preliminary injunction against DOE’s stop-work order on July 8, 2016, State of South Carolina v. U.S. Department of Energy, No. 1:18-cv-01431-JMC (D.S.C. 2018). On July 16, 2018, the district court put South Carolina’s lawsuit on hold pending a review by the appellate court.
2 DOE has disposed of approximately 4.8MT of plutonium residues at WIPP including residues that resulted from cleanup of the Hanford site in Washington and the Rocky Flats site (now named Rocky Flat Environmental Technology Site) in Colorado. However, the committee did not review the processes used for disposal of these wastes.
capacity at Pantex, Los Alamos, and Savannah River (Figure 2-2) for packaging, shipping, disassembling, oxidizing, diluting, assaying, repackaging and transporting the plutonium oxide, and it must operate that system safely and securely for 31 years or longer. Although a system plan for the dilute and dispose option has been developed (Surplus Plutonium Disposition System Plan, SRNS-TR-2016, 00136, Rev. 03), the formal coordination required across DOE offices to make decisions that affect the different offices’ priorities is not clearly described or acknowledged in the documentation.
DOE-NNSA will have to develop a progressively improved understanding of the operational and transportation risks and uncertainties for each process step as its moves through the DOE Order 413.3B planning process into full-scale operations. DOE-NNSA can learn from DOE-EM’s ongoing efforts to dispose of 6 MT of plutonium in WIPP,4 and it will also have to incorporate stakeholder feedback into its own planning efforts.
The committee observed over the course of its data collection that some improvements are being made to conceptual planning as process knowledge is gained with the prototype systems installed at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site. Additionally, DOE-NNSA continues to evaluate potential security risks associated with shipment of diluted plutonium to WIPP and has indicated to the committee that it will implement mitigation strategies as needed. Evidence of the changing nature of the program is a recently updated version of the Dilute and Dispose System Requirements document received by the committee during the writing of this report (DOE 2018d).5
These issues are discussed in the following subsections.
3 An updated version of the Surplus Plutonium Disposition System Plan has been created but has not yet been shared with the committee.
4 Indeed, DOE-NNSA told the committee that it intends to incorporate the lessons learned from DOE-EM’s plutonium disposal program into its own planning efforts.
5 The Configuration Control Log included the following description of the changes made: “Complete Update. Updated to incorporate revised assumptions and requirements.”
DOE-NNSA asserts that the intent of the PMDA to disposition 34 MT of surplus plutonium cannot be met without both diluting this material and disposing of by emplacing it in a deep geological repository such as WIPP. Access to WIPP’s capacity is an essential and critical requirement for the success of DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans (see Section 3.3 for further analysis and discussion on the relative barriers of the dilution and disposal process). WIPP’s current statutory and physical capacity is potentially problematic for four reasons:
- WIPP is the only deep geologic repository currently available in the United States for surplus plutonium disposal.
- Demand for future defense-generated transuranic (TRU) waste disposal capacity at WIPP for this program and others presently exceeds its congressionally legislated capacity under the Land Withdrawal Act.
- Access to WIPP is controlled by DOE-EM and the state of New Mexico, which have different legal obligations and programmatic priorities than DOE-NNSA.
- WIPP operations are scheduled to end in 2034,6 well before the scheduled 2049 end date for a DOE-NNSA dilute and dispose campaign.
The following barriers require resolution through permit modifications with the state of New Mexico and/or changes to legislation through Congressional action in order for DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plans for dilute and dispose to be viable:
- Increasing statutory capacity at WIPP through a recalculation of existing and future “volumes of record” through a permit modification (or through a change of the TRU waste capacity limits in the LWA, see discussion later in this report),
- Increasing physical capacity at WIPP by adding more disposal room requiring a permit modification,
- Extending the end date of WIPP to 2050 or later requiring a permit modification.
Some of these actions may be required for future TRU waste streams absent the disposal of 34 MT of diluted plutonium; regardless, the approval of the permits is necessary for DOE-NNSA’s conceptual plan. Further discussion of these four potential barriers to WIPP access is provided in the following subsections.
3.1.1 WIPP is the only deep geologic repository currently available in the United States for surplus plutonium disposal.
Other potentially suitable disposal options for surplus plutonium—for example, Yucca Mountain in Nevada or deep boreholes in as-yet unspecified locations—are not presently being pursued by the U.S. government.7 Development and licensing of alternative disposal options would likely take decades. Based
6 The closure date can be found in Permit Attachment G the WIPP Hazardous Waste Permit (June 2018; see Schedule for Final Facility Closure (NMED 2018b, p. G-6): “For the purpose of establishing a schedule for closure, an operating and closure period of no more than 35 years (25 years for disposal operations and 10 years for closure) is assumed. This operating period may be extended or shortened depending on a number of factors, including the rate of waste approved for shipment to the WIPP facility and the schedules of TRU mixed waste generator sites, and future decommissioning activities.”
7 U.S. surplus plutonium was included in the inventory for the environmental assessments of Yucca Mountain. From the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (June 2008) DOE/EIS-0250F-S1 SUMMARY, emphasis added: MATERIALS CONSIDERED FOR DISPOSAL The NWPA [Nuclear Waste Policy Act] limits how much spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste DOE could emplace in the first geologic repository to 70,000 MTHM [metric tons of heavy metal] until a second repository is in operation. The materials proposed for disposal under the Proposed Action would include about 63,000 MTHM of commercial spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The remaining 7,000 MTHM would consist of about 2,333 MTHM of DOE spent nuclear fuel (including naval spent nuclear fuel) and the equivalent of 4,667 MTHM of DOE high-level radioactive waste. This inventory could include surplus weapons-usable plutonium, which DOE could immobilize and dispose of as part of the high-level radioactive waste inventory, or use to produce mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel (called mixed-oxide fuel).
on the difficulty of establishing a single repository for spent nuclear fuel in the United States, it is hard to see how an alternative repository could be planned, developed, and implemented in that timeframe.
Exclusive reliance on WIPP for disposal is a single-point failure risk for the success of the dilute and dispose program. Any unplanned shutdowns or suspensions of disposals at WIPP—such as the shutdown that occurred between February 2014 and December 20168 as the result of a truck fire and an unrelated radiation release or the much shorter suspension in late May 2018 to address a misaligned drum—could delay, disrupt, and potentially derail and increase the costs of DOE-NNSA’s efforts to dispose of 34 MT of surplus plutonium (Barber 2018, DOE n.d.).
3.1.2 Demand for disposal capacity at WIPP for this program and others presently exceeds its congressionally legislated capacity under the Land Withdrawal Act.
WIPP’s disposal capacity is defined by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act to be 6.2 million ft3 (175,564 m3) of defense-generated TRU waste. The 1988 Consultation and Cooperation Agreement between DOE and New Mexico further limits the amount of remote-handled (RH) TRU in WIPP to 250,000 ft3 (7,079 m3), leaving 5,950,000 ft3 (168,485 m3) of disposal space for CH-TRU waste9 (DOE 1988).
A special 2017 TRU waste inventory analysis, NNSA Surplus Plutonium Disposition Performance Assessment Inventory Report 2017, was produced by Los Alamos National Laboratory in response to a request by Sandia National Laboratories (LANL 2017). The inventory report included future wastes from the generating sites, was extended through 2050, and included 42.2 MT of surplus plutonium for disposal in WIPP. The inventory analysis notes that WIPP does not have sufficient statutory disposal capacity for all of DOE’s surplus plutonium given the volume of TRU waste already emplaced or likely to be emplaced in the repository (LANL 2017).10
The currently available physical capacity in WIPP is limited by the number of panels in its original design. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from 2017 concluded that WIPP would reach current available physical capacity by 2026 and that an additional two panels would be needed to accommodate future TRU waste. The GAO further estimated that an additional one-and-a-half rooms would be needed to emplace 34 MT of diluted surplus plutonium (GAO 2017). Their assessment did not include the 8.2 MT (from the 42.2 MT) reported in the 2017 special inventory report noted above. The GAO report further notes that a new mathematical modelling tool will be required to assess WIPP’s regulatory performance necessary for the design of new panels. The committee has requested further but has not yet received information about the modelling efforts including the plans and schedule for model verification and validation. The committee will discuss the modelling effort further in its final report.
Based on the current inventory of surplus plutonium and with limited other disposition options, it is foreseeable that at least 48.2 MT of surplus plutonium could be requested to be disposed of in WIPP in the future, consisting of the following (see Figure 2-1):
8 Waste shipments to WIPP did not resume until April 2017.
9 CH TRU is defined in the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act as “transuranic waste with a surface dose rate not greater than 200 millirem per hour.” RH TRU is defined in the Act as “transuranic waste with a surface dose rate of 200 millirem per hour or greater.” Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Withdrawal Act, P.L. 102-579, 106 Stat. 4777, 4778 (1992).
10 This analysis was based on actual and projected waste inventories as of the end of calendar year 2015. The committee has not verified the content of the Los Alamos analysis but has no reason to question its accuracy.
11 The volume for the 6 MT of surplus plutonium is included in the Annual Transuranic Waste Inventory Report – 2016. It is not explicitly shown but is included in the INV-SPD-17 estimated volumes (LANL 2017).
- 34 MT of surplus plutonium planned to be disposed of under the PMDA; and
- 7.1 MT of surplus pit plutonium and 1.1 MT of plutonium in “other forms” for which disposition pathways are currently undecided by DOE.
The Los Alamos inventory report concluded that the disposal of the proposed surplus plutonium would exceed the repository’s legislated capacity by about 17,700 m3 (LANL 2017) but it is clear that disposal of that waste would also exceed its current physical capacity as well.
A committee-generated estimate of planned and potential waste disposal volumes in WIPP as requested in its tasking (see task 2.c in Box 1-1) is shown in Figure 3-1. This analysis includes additional potential sources of TRU waste not shown in the 2017 Inventory Report. The committee estimate shows that:
- An estimated 156,000 m3 of emplaced and WIPP-bound waste will be disposed of in WIPP from current and planned DOE-site cleanup activities through 2050 (LANL 2017).
- Disposal of about 48.2 MT of surplus plutonium in WIPP would require about 34,000 m3 of disposal space (assuming 300g of plutonium per 55-gallon drum or Criticality Controlled Overpack [CCO]).
- DOE has not made a decision to dispose of tank waste in WIPP but the volumes have been included in future estimates of WIPP waste. Disposal of some TRU waste stored in tanks at Idaho and Hanford would require 3,187 m3 based on recent estimates. However, the tank waste estimates vary by year. For example, earlier estimates of tank wastes from Hanford indicate up to 8,400 m3 of disposal space, not including the volume of tank waste solidifier. (DOE 2014a, Section 188.8.131.52).
- Disposal of Greater-Than-Class-C (GTCC) waste and GTCC-like12 waste in WIPP was identified as one of several preferred alternatives in the Final EIS for GTCC and GTCC-like Waste. The volume of DOE-owned and generated GTCC-like waste is 2,800 m3 as shown in Figure 3-1.13 The total volume of both GTCC and GTCC-like waste would require about 12,000 m3 of disposal space.
- Estimated volumes for TRU waste generated from future pit production have been requested but not yet received from DOE-NNSA.
The total disposal space required to accommodate all of these waste streams is about 196,000 m3, which exceeds WIPP’s legislated capacity by over 20,400 m3. Any current or future unanticipated amounts would add to this excess amount.
DOE-EM is attempting to change the accounting of the “waste volume of record” through a permit modification request to the New Mexico Environment Department.14 If approved, this modified calculation would change the way that DOE-EM reports waste volumes for compliance with the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act waste volume limit, and “free up” about 30 percent of waste capacity. This increase could postpone but may not eliminate WIPP’s capacity problem.
The volume of emplaced waste in WIPP is currently accounted for by the volume of the outermost waste container (e.g., a 55-gallon drum or 0.2 m3 as shown in Figure 2-3b). The same volume is accounted and reported for both the NMED permit (i.e., the state of New Mexico’s Underground Hazardous Waste Disposal Unit limits15) and the LWA (i.e., the congressional limits).
The permit modification proposes to change the volume accounting basis for reporting against the LWA limits only. DOE proposes to create a “Land Withdrawal Act TRU Waste Volume of Record” to refer to the volume of TRU waste inside a disposal container. The permit modification request proposes to track the “LWA TRU Waste Volume of Record” separately from the NMED Permit “TRU Mixed Waste Volume.”
DOE notes in the permit request that the volume of emplaced contact-handled TRU (CH TRU) mixed waste as of December 6, 2017, based on the outermost container volumes is 91,709 m3 while the volume based on the innermost container volumes, 65,347 m3. This represents a recovery of ~28 percent of the currently available volume. The committee notes that the DOE retrospective capacity analysis appears to be based on only “overpack disposal containers.” The DOE reported to the committee that the LWA Volume of Record would only be applied to the inner container volumes of overpacked waste containers, for
12 “Greater-than-Class-C” or GTCC is a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) designation for low-level radioactive waste that exceeds the concentration limits of radionuclides established for Class C waste in NRC’s Code of Federal Regulations 10. CFR § 61.55. Although the NRC classification system does not apply to DOE (DOE 2016b, p.s-10): “the DOE owns or generates both low level radioactive waste and non-defense-generated TRU waste which have characteristics similar to those of GTCC and for which there may be no path for disposal. DOE has included these wastes, otherwise known as ‘GTCC-like waste.’”
13 Disposal of this material in WIPP is one of several of DOE’s preferred disposition alternatives; the others are generic commercial low-level waste disposal facility (see DOE 2016b). A record of decision has not yet been issued by DOE.
14 The state of New Mexico ruled in June 2018 that DOE’s request should be treated as a Class 3 modification (DOE proposed a Class 2 modification) given the significant public interest in this issue. A Class 3 modification allows for public input to the permit modification process (ENV 2018a).
15 A typical disposal panel holds approximately 18,000 m3. See Table J-3 in the WIPP Permit: https://hwbdocuments.env.nm.gov/Waste%20Isolation%20Pilot%20Plant/170900/170900%20WIPP%20Permit%20PDF/Attachment%20J%2004-15-2011.pdf.
example, 10-drum overpack containers (TDOP, designed to contain older deteriorating drums), or pipe overpack containers, (including the CCC/CCO which consists of a inner pipe with the TRU waste contained within a larger 55-gallon drum, as shown in Figure 2-3b), as opposed to the “fill factor” of direct-loaded containers. The permit request itself is not explicit on this detail.
As shown schematically in Figure 2-3b, an inner pipe, referred to as a Criticality Control Container (CCC), contains the diluted surplus plutonium. A single CCC with dimensions of 6 inch diameter, 26.875 length is nested within a 55-gallon-drum-sized CCO. Each CCC has a limit of no more than 300 fissile gram equivalents (FGE) of surplus plutonium. The number of CCC/CCOs needed to dispose of 34 MT is easily calculated; 34,000,000 g divided by 300 g, resulting in 113,333 containers.
Under the present accounting, this equates to ~23,800 m3 for both the LWA volume and NMED volume reporting. If the “LWA TRU Waste Volume of Record” permit request is approved, the accounting would be ~23,800 m3 for the NMED hazardous waste disposal unit (HWDU) and ~1,405 m3 for the LWA reporting, providing a 94 percent recovery of the available volume needed for disposition of the 34 MT.
As indicated by the LANL inventory estimate, DOE is analyzing the case of up to 42.2 MT (34 MT of the PMDA plus 7.1 MT and 1.1 MT as shown in Figure 2-1) of surplus plutonium in WIPP in addition to the 6 MT currently being processed. Based on current plans, the 6 MT and 34 MT portions of this total will be disposed of using the CCC/CCO disposal containers. It is reasonable to assume the remaining 8.2 MT would be disposed of in a similar manner. Using the same calculations above, this would amount to 33,740 m3 for the NMED HWDU reporting and 1,992 m3 for the LWA reporting, a difference of 31,748 m3.
The combination of reduction in the “LWA TRU Waste Volume of Record” for already emplaced waste plus the potential disposal of 48.2 MT surplus plutonium would provide 58,110 m3 additional capacity under current LWA limits.
The United States will continue to generate defense TRU waste through its weapons programs. It is likely to have more defense TRU waste than deep geologic disposal capacity, even if the LWA volume of record is allowed to be recalculated. This puts inordinate pressure on WIPP to accommodate all federal needs for disposal of TRU wastes for decades to come.
The remaining capacity at WIPP is a limited resource and is allocated based on many different priorities. One way to mitigate the risk to the dilute and dispose program would be to reserve space at WIPP. However, this is not being considered under the current processes. Space management (i.e., planned location for the emplacement of the waste as it arrives at WIPP) is currently designed to take waste as it is prepared for shipment to WIPP. In response to a committee question about emplacement procedures (i.e., identifying location within the repository for emplacement) at WIPP, DOE responded that its long-term and mid-term planning is based on estimates from the defense TRU waste generating sites. For decisions on emplacement location, the Carlsbad Field Office manager uses an 8-weeks shipping projection. There appears to be no mechanisms for prioritizing waste for disposal space years in advance (as would be needed for the diluted plutonium) or reserving space in WIPP for high-priority waste streams (DOE 2018b).
3.1.3 Access to WIPP is controlled by DOE-EM and the State of New Mexico, which have different legal obligations and programmatic priorities than DOE-NNSA.
WIPP is a DOE-EM-managed facility and is being operated for the benefit of DOE-EM’s cleanup program, which operates under legally enforceable schedules and agreements with several states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A DOE-NNSA campaign to dispose of diluted surplus plutonium in WIPP would compete with DOE-EM for access to WIPP’s waste receipt and emplacement facilities.16 It is not clear to the committee which entity within DOE would be responsible for resolving scheduling conflicts between the two offices or the process by which those conflicts would be resolved.
There are several legally binding agreements related to WIPP operations, including:
- The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (P.L. 102-579, 106 Stat. 4777-4796 ).
- Stipulated Agreements and Consultation and Cooperation (“C&C”) Agreement between New Mexico and DOE (DOE 1988).
- WIPP waste isolation pilot plant (WIPP WAC) (DOE 2016d).
Additionally, there are a number of legal/political/policy issues associated with DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose program that cut across various levels of New Mexico government—local (county), state (legislature and governor), and the New Mexico congressional delegation.
There is a complex set of laws, regulations, and orders applicable to the proposed dilute and dispose process. These could also include agreements with South Carolina, tribal nations, and southern states along the transportation routes in addition to New Mexico. There is a long history of commitments, some of which are legally binding, made by DOE related to radioactive waste removal from specific states. Delays in implementing the dilute and dispose process could result in fines and/or affect DOE’s ability to import or remove waste into or out of South Carolina.17
16 There are limits to the number of waste shipments that can be received and emplaced in WIPP each week. A DOE-EM representative told the committee in November 2017 that current rates of emplacing waste in WIPP allow five to six shipments per week but that emplacement rates were expected to ramp up in the future due to operational efficiencies and added ventilation (Forinash 2017).
17 See 50 U.S.C. §2566 (2010).
3.1.4 WIPP operations are scheduled to end in 2034, well before the scheduled 2049 end date for a DOE-NNSA dilute and dispose campaign.
WIPP has been operational for more than 19 years and parts of the facility and underground access ways are approaching 30 years old.18 Extending WIPP’s projected life from 2034 (the currently planned closure date19) to 2049 (the projected end of the DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose campaign) would add another minimum of 16 years to the life of the facility. Extending WIPP life beyond 2034 will require approvals from New Mexico (through permit modification requests by DOE) and most certainly will require additional appropriations from Congress. There will likely be additional costs for maintaining WIPP’s systems, structures, and components in a safe and secure condition during this life extension, and the entire cost of running and maintaining WIPP could fall on DOE-NNSA once the DOE-EM TRU waste mission has ended. DOE-NNSA has yet to issue a life-cycle cost estimate for the dilute and dispose option, and so the committee is unable to evaluate whether the additional costs noted above have been included in that estimate.
DOE has issued a number of environmental impact assessments (EISs), supplemental EISs, and records of decision (RODs) for dispositioning surplus plutonium (see Box 3-1). The final programmatic EIS, FPEIS-0229, evaluated strategies and locations for storing and dispositioning weapons-usable20 fissile materials (DOE 1996a); the associated ROD selected MOX and immobilization as the preferred options for surplus plutonium disposition. The Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS-0283 (tiered from the FPEIS-0229, DOE 1996a) evaluated site-specific alternatives for the construction and operation of facilities for disposition of up to ~45 MT of surplus plutonium (DOE 1999). The associated ROD in 2000 identified immobilization and irradiation of MOX fuel as the preferred dual alternatives for surplus plutonium disposal. Two years later, the immobilization program was cancelled due to budget constraints and MOX was selected as the only method for plutonium disposal for the United States (DOE 2002). The PMDA was later renegotiated (DOS 2010). Immobilization was removed from the listed disposal options; some of the material selected for immobilization was to be processed at the MOX plant to make it useable in MOX fuel.
In 2015, dilute and dispose was specifically considered as one of the disposition options for non-pit surplus plutonium (referred to as “WIPP Disposal”) in the Final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DOE 2016c).21 Under this disposition option, plutonium oxide would be “mixed/blended with inert material …. Inert material would be added to dilute the plutonium-239 content and inhibit plutonium recovery and could include dry mixtures of commercially available materials.” (DOE 2015, p. S-31). The subsequent April 2016 ROD selected WIPP disposal for dispositioning 6 MT of diluted non-pit plutonium.
18 Note that parts of the underground have been accessible since 1988.
19 The original closure date for WIPP was 2018; an extension to 2034 more than doubles the originally planned lifetime of the facility.
20 A fissionable nuclear material such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239 that is pure enough to be usable in a nuclear weapon.
21 DOE/EIS-0283-S2 evaluates environmental impacts for disposition of 13.1 MT of surplus plutonium, including 6 MT of surplus non-pit plutonium (managed by DOE-EM) as well as 7.1 MT of plutonium from pits shown in Figure 2-1 of this report (DOE 2015).
It is DOE policy to follow NEPA and to apply the NEPA review process early in program development.22 Requirements for a programmatic (including sitewide) NEPA document are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, 10 CFR Part 1021. Programmatic NEPA documents are required to support a DOE programmatic decision. Programmatic decisions are defined as:
Major Federal action includes actions with effects that may be major and which are potentially subject to Federal control and responsibility. … Actions include the circumstance where the responsible officials fail to act and that failure to act is reviewable by courts or administrative tribunals under the Administrative Procedure Act or other applicable law as agency action…
(b) Federal actions tend to fall within one of the following categories:
(3) Adoption of programs, such as a group of concerted actions to implement a specific policy or plan; systematic and connected agency decisions allocating agency resources to implement a specific statutory program or executive directive. (10 CFR 1508.18((b)3))
DOE has not yet issued a Notice of Intent (NOI), an EIS, or ROD for dispositioning 34 MT of pit and non-pit surplus plutonium using the dilute and dispose process. At the very least, DOE will need to issue a supplemental EIS and ROD for this disposition alternative. A programmatic environmental impact assessment might be required because
- the quantities of surplus plutonium being considered for disposal at WIPP are much larger than those assessed in the 2015 Supplemental EIS and represent the majority of the United States excess plutonium (i.e., as much as 42.2 MT versus 6 MT); and
- it is not clear whether the processing plans and facilities to be used for dispositioning 34 MT of surplus plutonium are similar enough to those for the 6 MT considered in the 2015 Supplemental EIS.
- the assumptions that were made, the preferred alternatives identified, and the facilities at which the processes would take place when the original PEIS (DOE 1996a, see Box 3-1) have changed significantly.
Additionally, there may be other EISs and RODs tied to the facilities to be used for the DOE-NNSA dilute and dispose process that might also need to be updated or created.
The committee was asked to evaluate the viability of DOE-NNSA’s dilute and dispose conceptual plans to support U.S. commitments under the PMDA. In its assessment, the committee compared both the technical and procedural requirements of the amended PMDA (DOS 2010).
In its technical assessment, barriers to plutonium recovery were considered by the committee and referencing the 1994 NAS report which developed the “spent fuel standard” (see Chapter 2). The current PMDA-approved method of disposition is the MOX fuel option that includes irradiation in a reactor would provide the following barriers for reuse in weapons:
- Chemical: Oxidation of the plutonium metal, and dilution of the oxidized plutonium with uranium oxide (UO2) to form MOX fuel.
- Isotopic: The plutonium-239 isotopic composition is shifted during irradiation by the fission of plutonium-239 and -241 and by the transmutation of plutonium-239 to -240, plutonium-240 to -241, and plutonium-241 to -242. The ratio of plutonium-240/plutonium-239 would be increased to at least 0.1 giving an increase in neutron generation making the plutonium much more difficult to use for production of normal weapons.
- Radiation: Irradiation in a reactor creates a radiation barrier sufficient to be self-protecting for decades.
- Physical: The weight and size23 of a nuclear fuel assembly is sufficient to require special-handling equipment for processing.
The dilute and dispose option provides the following barriers:
- Chemical: Oxidation of the plutonium metal and dilution of the plutonium-239 with a classified dry-blended adulterant using classified methods, and
- Physical: Packaged into a stainless steel pipe within a 55-gallon drum (see Figure 2-3b) and disposed of in a deep geologic repository (WIPP).
As compared to the MOX option, the dilute and dispose option does not require additional processing steps and remote and special handling equipment to recover the plutonium due to the lack of isotopic, radiation, and physical (i.e., due to weight and size of the waste) barriers.
A 1994 NAS report which outlined the spent fuel standard makes two statements relevant to the dilute and dispose approach. An assessment of the chemical barrier is provided (NAS 1994, p. 148):
Chemical barriers alone, such as diluting the plutonium or combining it chemically with other elements, will not be sufficient to match [the combination of] chemical, radiological, and isotopic barriers, and therefore cannot meet the spent fuel standard.
And its assessment of the physical barrier of deep geologic storage through boreholes (NAS 1994, p. 16):
Plutonium in such boreholes would be extremely inaccessible to potential proliferators, but would be recoverable by the state in control of the borehole site.
The 1994 committee assessed disposition options for meeting the spent fuel standard that included both chemical and radiological barriers or chemical and substantial physical barriers but does not review a dilute and dispose option as proposed by DOE-NNSA.
The PMDA does not reference the 1994 NAS report but the means for dispositioning the surplus plutonium outlined in the agreement, irradiation of MOX fuel in nuclear reactors, met the spent fuel standard. As discussed below, there is no indication that the process for modifying the current PMDA has not been initiated so there is no official response by the Russian Federation. However, the Russians expressed concerns over an “immobilization only” approach for the 34 MT as discussed in the ROD which moved the U.S. program to a MOX only disposition approach:
Russia does not consider immobilization alone to be an acceptable approach because immobilization, unlike the irradiation of MOX fuel, fails to degrade the isotopic composition of the plutonium. Russia has contended that the United States could easily obtain plutonium by removing it from the immobilized waste form in the event of a desire to reuse the plutonium for nuclear weapons. Because selection of an immobilization only approach would lead to loss of Russian interest in and commitment to surplus plutonium disposition, DOE is of the view that if only one disposition approach is to be pursued, the MOX approach rather than the immobilization approach is the preferable one. (DOE 2002, p. 19434)
The committee also reviewed the procedural requirements of the PMDA. Article III of the PMDA Additional Protocol 2010 specifies the means that are to be used by the United States and the Russian Federation for dispositioning 34 MT of surplus plutonium:
23 A fuel assembly consisting of ~200 rods and 12 feet long is over 2 MT (https://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cyclefac/fuel-fab.html for LWR fuel assemblies).
Disposition shall be by irradiation of disposition plutonium as fuel in nuclear reactors; or any other methods that may be agreed by the Parties in writing. (DOS 2010, p. 4, Article III)
Article XIII of the PMDA Additional Protocol 2010 also specifies how the agreement can be amended:
This Agreement may only be amended by written agreement of the Parties, except that the Annex on Key Program Elements may be updated as specified in paragraph 5 of that Annex. (DOS 2010, p. 10, Article XIII)
To the committee’s knowledge, the United States has not notified the Russian Federation in writing about its plans to pursue the dilute and dispose process in place of MOX. However, the Russian Federation government is aware of DOE’s desire to use dilute and dispose to disposition 34 MT of surplus plutonium. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin raised concerns in an April 2016 meeting with journalists about the United States’ use of the dilute and dispose process for dispositioning surplus plutonium under the PMDA:
[...] [B]ack in the early 2000s, the Americans and we agreed on destroying weapons-grade plutonium. [...] Each side had 34 tonnes. We signed this agreement and settled on the procedures for the material’s destruction, agreed that this would be done on an industrial basis, which required the construction of special facilities. Russia fulfilled its obligations in this regard and built these facilities, but our American partners did not.
Moreover, only recently, they announced that they plan to dispose of their accumulated highly enriched nuclear fuel by using a method other than what we agreed on when we signed the corresponding agreement, but by diluting and storing it in certain containers. This means that they preserve what is known as the breakout potential, in other words it can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons-grade plutonium again. This is not what we agreed on. Now we will have to think about what to do about this and how to respond to this. [...] [O]ur partners should understand that [...] serious issues, especially with regard to nuclear arms, are [where] one should be able to meet one’s obligations. (IPFM Blog 2016)
President Putin subsequently suspended Russian implementation of the PMDA in October 2016. The U.S. response to the Russian Federation’s actions are summarized in the State Department’s 2018 Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments:
Despite Russia’s assertion, the PMDA allows either side to utilize any disposition method that is agreed by the Parties in writing (Article III.1). Neither side is in violation of the PMDA and neither side has begun implementation of its disposition program. Changing the U.S. method to dilution-burial, however, would allow the United States to begin fulfilling the goals of the agreement more quickly. (DOS 2018, p. 14)
Based on President Putin’s comments above and the stated reluctance of the Russian Federation to agree to an immobilization only option (DOE 2002), it could be difficult for the United States to get written approval from the Russian Federation for implementing the dilute and dispose process in place of MOX. Of course, the United States could, as a matter of policy, pursue dilute and dispose outside of the PMDA framework.
In the context of current events including uncertainty about the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation, a renegotiation of the PMDA may not be a reasonable near-term expectation. The committee recognizes that changing United States-Russian Federation relations may de facto alter the applicability of the PMDA’s plutonium disposition criteria to the proposed dilute and dispose method. However, the committee does not see any evidence that the PMDA criteria are not applicable to the proposed dilute and dispose method and notes that the existing PMDA does not recognize dilute and dispose as an acceptable method of disposition. Notably, DOE-NNSA recently revised the dilute and dispose program requirements document; the updated text no longer mentions the PMDA as justification for the program (DOE 2018d).
The DOE-NNSA is in the early stages of development for a proposed 30-year program. Congress has appropriated funds only for initial planning and cost estimation activities. DOE-NNSA aims to advance from Critical Decision-0 (CD-0) to CD-1 by 2019 (see Figure 2-5) where CD-1 “marks the completion of the project definition phase and the conceptual design” (DOE 2010, p. A-5). Therefore, a large number of details and risks of the dilute and dispose plan are yet to be determined, many of which are too early to accurately estimate or identify. Additionally, the decision to move to dilute and dispose for the 34 MT under the PMDA is politically charged. It is coupled to the decision to cancel the MOX plant. Moreover, Russian Federation concurrence with this change has not been resolved.
Although some details may be undetermined at the early stage of program development, it is clear that public and state-level engagement will be important to the success of the program (see Finding 3 and Recommendation 2). The dilute and dispose conceptual plans rely on significant permit modifications for WIPP operations to be approved by the State of New Mexico. The process is likely to require periods of public comments. Also, the large number of transports of weapons-grade material and diluted plutonium waste between New Mexico and South Carolina are likely to raise public concern. The changing mission of WIPP, if the dilute and dispose option were to be fully implemented, has also been raised as a concern by the public (Anastas 2018, Chaturvedi 2018). Finally, a significant portion of the proposed program relies on access to classified information, material, and assessments, many of which are under development at this early stage of the program.24 For these reasons—the continued evolution of the classified plans and the classified list of the constituents of the adulterant—this committee was unable to judge the whether the adulterant would add any additional hazards to WIPP.25
24 A subgroup of this committee with the appropriate clearances has been briefed on the classified draft dilute and dispose assessments and plans but the assessments and plans are not yet final.
Independent technical review of DOE’s plans could improve DOE’s plans, actions, and decisions while increasing public trust. In 1981, the establishment of an independent technical review group, Environmental Evaluation Group (EEG), was required as a result of a Stipulated Agreement between the State of New Mexico, DOE, and the Department of the Interior. EEG was disbanded in 2004 due to lack of funding.26
The Supplemental Stipulated Agreement that established EEG was clear that an independent technical review group be created for “the full operational life of WIPP through and including the decontamination and decommissioning.” (DOE 1988, p. 29). Section 1433 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1989, as originally written, identified the roles and responsibilities of the organization and provided New Mexico with assurance of the independence of the group.27 Recently, the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 201928 has language calling for independent technical review. Since New Mexico will be the recipient of the diluted plutonium waste and New Mexico’s Environmental Department will review DOE’s permit modification requests, an independent technical review organization representing New Mexico’s concerns could increase the robustness of DOE plans as well as increase public trust in them.
26 The EEG was established with federal funding in 1978 to provide an independent technical review of the nuclear waste repository proposed for salt beds in New Mexico. In 1981, the State and DOE settled the lawsuit filed by then Attorney General Jeff Bingaman. This set the stage for the Stipulated Agreement, and accompanying documents, to respect New Mexico’s concerns. The Stipulated Agreement makes reference to the Consultation and Cooperation (C&C) Agreement. Article X of the C&C Agreement states:
The parties recognize that in order for the State to comment and make recommendations under this Agreement it must have adequate resources to carry out an independent review of WIPP. DOE shall continue to assist the State in obtaining the resources necessary for the State to undertake a meaningful independent review of the public health and safety aspects of WIPP. (DOE 1988, p. 12)
The DOE recognizes the State’s desire to continue the State review capability and further agrees to negotiate for an appropriate State review capability independent of D.O.E. beyond 1985 for the full operational life of WIPP through and including the decontamination and decommissioning stages and post-operational stages of WIPP (DOE 1988, p. 29).
27 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1988, P.L. 100-456, 102 Stat. 1918-2124 (1988).
28 S.R. 115-258, 115th Cong (2018) requires DOE to submit a report in early 2019 to include “acquiring independent scientific and technical review of dilute and dispose processes and waste forms to ensure compliance with waste acceptance criteria…” (p. 111). The bill has been approved by the Senate Appropriations committee but not the broader Senate or House.
As noted above, the dilute and dispose plan has many critical components that could affect public health, safety, and security but are classified including: details on the chemical nature of the adulterant, evaluations necessary to terminate safeguards of the diluted plutonium oxide, analysis of the criticality risks, and security planning for the transportation of diluted plutonium oxide waste across much of the southern United States. In particular, the transportation plans could affect members of the public outside of New Mexico. As the classified aspects of the dilute and dispose program plans mature, an independent technical group with appropriate clearances could improve the planning and increase trust across the southern states including South Carolina where the diluted plutonium waste will be stored until it is shipped to WIPP for disposition.
The classified aspect of the adulterant leads to other complications. Negotiating a new method of disposal with the Russian Federation is likely to be hampered or at least complicated by the use a classified adulterant. Further, WIPP operations are not designed to handle classified information although the committee was told that small volumes of classified TRU waste have been disposed previously. The precedent set could have larger policy concerns when and if other countries agree to disposition plutonium using dilute and dispose.
The present committee was charged by the U.S. Congress with evaluating DOE-NNSA’s plans for disposing of 34 MT of surplus plutonium to support the requirements of the PMDA. The committee is still gathering information to complete this task. The committee’s comments, observations, and findings in this Interim Report led the committee to develop the following three question sets, directed primarily at DOE-NNSA. Answers to these questions may result in changes in the committee’s final report to the preliminary findings, conclusions, and recommendations.
- 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/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: 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? 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 EPA 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?
The committee hopes to obtain detailed answers to these questions from DOE-NNSA prior to the completion of the final report from this study.