Archive for May, 2018
WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators on Thursday deleted a Trump administration budget request for $120 million to restart licensing on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, setting up another impasse with the House.
A similar stalemate shelved the controversial project last year.
Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left the funding request sought by the Department of Energy for licensing of the Nevada project out of the annual spending bill for energy and water for fiscal 2019, which begins Oct. 1.
Their decision accompanies a push by Alexander to seek a comprehensive approach to nuclear waste from power plants that includes permanent repositories, like the one proposed for Yucca Mountain, and interim storage sites in other states.
House appropriators, in contrast, favor funding to restart the licensing procedure for Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Differences in House and Senate spending bills must be reconciled by a conference committee. Last year, the Senate prevailed and no requested money for Yucca Mountain licensing was included in a final omnibus spending bill for 2018.
In a letter to Alexander and Feinstein on May 17, Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., urged the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water to keep the Yucca Mountain funding out of the 2019 spending bill.
Heller: ‘I was successful’
“I’m pleased to report that I was successful,” Heller said in a statement Thursday. “The funding bill approved by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee today does not fund a single dollar for Yucca Mountain.”
Also Thursday, the House approved a defense authorization bill that includes language inserted by Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., that would require the defense and energy secretaries to detail for Congress the potential impact of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain on military operations at the Nevada Test and Training Range and the Nevada National Security Site.
Rosen, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said last year that storing the waste at Yucca Mountain could prevent Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test and Training Range from completing core missions.
The defense bill also includes authorization to spend $30 million for military produced waste that would be stored at Yucca Mountain if the site were licensed and a facility constructed.
The House voted 351-66 to approve the defense bill.
A spokeswoman for the Senate Armed Services Committee said the Senate version of the defense bill does not include the Yucca Mountain waste storage authorization.
Heller said he urged Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., to keep the authorization out of the defense bill.
Congress designated Yucca Mountain in 1987 as the nation’s permanent repository for nuclear waste generated by utility power plants and the military. But despite $15 billion spent to study the location, a facility has yet to be built on the Nye County site, mostly because of political opposition in Nevada.
Instead the waste is being stockpiled at power plants around the country.
Taxpayer liability grows
An annual DOE financial report released Thursday said taxpayer liability for litigation over the federal government’s failure to permanently store nuclear waste has grown to $34.1 billion, a $3.3 billion increase over last year.
“Taxpayers in all 50 states are now liable for $34.1 billion because the federal government has not even begun to consolidate the spent nuclear fuel stranded around our nation,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and the economy.
The House passed legislation this month to revive the application licensing process and increase the Yucca Mountain storage capacity to 110,000 metric tons.
Shimkus had urged the Senate to “quickly take up and pass that bipartisan bill to address this national priority.”
President Barack Obama delayed the licensing process in 2011 at the request of then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
President Donald Trump has sought to restart the process, which is expected to take roughly five years.
Gov. Brian Sandoval and the state’s congressional delegation are unanimously opposed to restarting the licensing process, as are the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and the casino industry, which fear the presence of a nuclear waste repository would hurt tourism in Southern Nevada.
Nine rural Nevada counties, including Nye, support a licensing review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to determine if the geologic repository is safe for permanent storage of waste. Nye County sees a permanent repository as a potential economic boon with high-paying federal jobs.
By Gary Martin / Las Vegas Review-Journal, Updated May 24, 2018 – 9:41 pm, as posted at https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/politics-and-government/nevada/senate-panel-again-drops-yucca-mountain-licensing-funding-from-budget/
TORONTO — Of the three main parties vying for office in Ontario’s spring election, only the NDP has spoken out against building a $2.4-billion nuclear waste bunker near Lake Huron.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the idea of burying radioactive waste so close to a major fresh-water source worries her and, should she be elected on June 7, would look to intervene against the project.
“As a party, we’re not in favour of having that facility in that location,” Horwath said recently on the campaign trail. “It’s something that we’re quite concerned about. We know that other leaders, both in Canada and across the border in the States, have sent significant letters of concern and protest to the federal government in regard to the siting of this facility.”
Ontario Power Generation argues the deep geologic repository at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine, Ont., is by far the best and safest option for permanently storing the low- and intermediate-level toxic waste that has been stored for years above ground. The utility maintains the stable rock would ensure no radiation leakage for centuries.
However, scores of communities on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have expressed alarm at the proposal. They maintain the consequences of contaminating the all-important fresh-water source is far too great to take.
“I hear big concerns from many different jurisdictions as well as individuals as well as communities,” Horwath said. “As an individual, as an Ontarian, as a Canadian, I’m worried about it. It’s problematic. I don’t think it’s smart to have any kind of nuclear storage on the edge of the lake.”
The waste bunker, first proposed more than a decade ago, is currently awaiting final approval from the federal government. Ottawa has repeatedly stalled since an environmental review panel gave its approval three years ago.
Most recently, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna demanded the power utility come back with clear and unequivocal endorsement from affected First Nations, who have made it clear they are in no hurry to do that.
For her part, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, who is vying for a second stint as premier, suggested the province has no role to play in the approval process.
“It’s a federal issue,” Wynne said. “They are dealing with municipalities, and we need to let that process roll out.”
While Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has not addressed the issue publicly, a party spokeswoman on the weekend was neutral on the wisdom of the proposal.
“The plan to bury low and intermediate nuclear waste must be done with local approval and in an environmentally sustainable way,” Melissa Lantsman said.
At the same time, the Tories called nuclear power “critical” to Ontario.
“It’s our cheapest, most reliable source of power and it powers more than 60 per cent of the province,” Lantsman said.
The repository plan calls for hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of radioactive waste — stored for years at the Bruce nuclear station site above ground — would be buried 680 metres deep. OPG has warned the cost of the project could rise by billions if delayed significantly.
However, more than 100 mayors and other elected officials on both sides of the border — they claim to speak for 16 million people — urged McKenna in November to reject the proposed bunker. They noted that local, county and state governments representing 23 million people had passed 230 resolutions opposing the burial of nuclear waste anywhere in the Great Lakes basin.
“When you’re talking about water, and the fact that we can’t live without clean water, we should be doing everything that we can not only to protect our fresh-water sources for our generation (but) for the next generations as well.”
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press, Published May 22, 2018 – 1:57pm, as posted at http://thechronicleherald.ca/canada/1572361-ndp-only-ontario-party-opposed-to-siting-nuclear-waste-bunker-near-lake-huron
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico residents will have two chances this week to tell the Nuclear Regulatory Commission what they think of a proposed underground nuclear storage facility in southeast New Mexico.
Holtec International is seeking permission for a temporary repository between Carlsbad and Hobbs, even though a permanent repository is not in the works. Don Hancock, director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, told state legislators at a hearing on the issue last Friday that spent nuclear fuel is not safe, and that’s why the East Coast wants to get rid of it by sending it to New Mexico.
“There are many problems with it,” Hancock said. “And our cities should not approve Holtec’s request to bring all the nation’s most dangerous commercial nuclear waste to New Mexico.”
Holtec officials argue the facility would be an economic boost for the region, and predicted $2.4 billion in capital investment and the addition of several hundred permanent jobs. The NRC will hold public hearings in Gallup Monday night at the Downtown Conference Center at 6 p.m. and in Albuquerque Tuesday at Crowne Plaza, also at 6 p.m.
Holetc International is seeking a 40 year lease to operate the storage facility. But Hancock said there’s no guarantee New Mexico won’t become the home for spent nuclear fuel for several decades or possibly forever.
“The decision makers will be members of Congress,” he said. “And so we of course also encourage people to talk to their members of Congress.”
The public can comment on the issue through July 30 at regulations.gov. Following the meeting, the NRC will draft an environmental statement prior to additional meetings next summer.
Roz Brown, Public News Service, PNS Daily Newscast – May 22, 2018, as posted at https://www.publicnewsservice.org/2018-05-21/environment/two-public-hearings-in-nm-this-week-on-nuclear-fuel-repository/a62587-1
On Thursday, May 10, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018 – HR 3053 – by a vote of 206 to 179, with 94 Democrats and 85 Republicans voting ‘Nay.’
Now, what some Nevadans have dubbed, ‘The Screw Nevada Bill 2.0,’ will go to the Senate, perhaps in this Session.
According to the Las Vegas Sun, just as with the first attempt to push it as the national high-level radioactive waste repository, opposition in Nevada continues to be strong.
In a letter to House leaders, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce made the quite logical point that,
Nevada is ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey as the fourth most active seismic area in the United States. The potential for seismic activity in the region raises serious questions about the logic and prudence of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Seismic activity in the region is another reason why Yucca Mountain is not a feasible or practical site for the storage of nuclear waste.
And in their own letter to the House, Las Vegas business owners made it clear that,
We stand with the many concerned citizens, small-business operators and bipartisan members of the Nevada delegation in staunch opposition to any attempt to restart the repository licensing process and will work tirelessly to ensure that radioactive waste is never stored anywhere near the world’s entertainment capital in Las Vegas.
The Shimkus Bill
Named for its author, Illinois Rep. Congressman John Shimkus, the legislation seeks to renew the licensing and funding process to re-open Yucca Mt., and authorize a so-called Centralized Interim Storage (CIS) program that would trigger massive, on-going shipments of high-level radioactive wastes on the country’s poorly-maintained network of highways, bridges and rail lines, through major population centers, for many years to come.
Grassroots nuclear safety advocacy groups have variously dubbed the plan ‘Mobil Chernobyl’ and ‘the Fukushima Freeway.’ Each of the 10,000 plus shipments would contain roughly the same amount of radioactive Cesium as was released by Chernobyl, and as much plutonium as was in the Hiroshima bomb.
To some, it may seem ironic that, as China moves ahead on its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, known as the ‘New Silk Road’ – a trade and transport network across Eurasia, Africa and beyond – forces in the U.S. are hard at work to establish a network of ’new nuke roads’ all across America.
Revisiting the Sad, Silly Saga of Yucca Mountain
In Nevada, just across the California border, sits a volcanic formation called Yucca Mountain. It’s in a region of ongoing volcanic and earthquake activity, on land long held sacred – and still claimed as tribal land according to the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley – the Western Shoshone and the Southern Paiute. Largely composed of a porous material called volcanic tuff, the mountain is permeable to water penetration and sits in close proximity to an aquifer extensively used by regional inhabitants – both native American and white – for their drinking and agricultural water supplies.
Yucca is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in what’s called the Great Basin, south of the Nevada Test and Training Range in the Nevada National Security Site, where over a hundred atmospheric and underground nuclear bomb tests were carried out for decades. It is, in large part, already a national nuclear ‘sacrifice area.’
In the government’s search for permanent deep geological repositories in which to bury the country’s energy and weapons waste that it pledged to take possession of and responsibility for, the government’s original goal was to identify and ‘scientifically characterize’ at least two sites, one east, one west of the Great Divide.
As the process played out over the years, however, it came to be more one of politics than of science. Of the nation’s 99 licensed, operating reactors, less than a dozen are West of the Mississippi. The so-called ‘NIMBY’ or ‘Not In My Backyard’ syndrome kicked in big time. Eventually just three potential sites were identified, all in the west: in Texas, Washington and Nevada – with the latter being at the time the state with the least political clout.
Thus, in 1987, came to be passed the first, now infamous “Screw Nevada” bill.
Though Nevada has no nuclear power plants of its own, its Yucca Mountain site became the sole target for waste from all the nation’s nuclear energy and weapons-producing states. Millions of dollars were spent in an attempt to justify ‘scientifically’ a site that had actually been chosen politically.
But then, for a while at least, the political balance of power changed. Enter Nevada Senator Harry Reid.
As an erstwhile Democratic power broker, Reid secured a pre-election promise from then-candidate Obama to shutter the Yucca project in return for electoral support. Once in the White House, President Obama actually kept his promise. In 2009, the project was effectively terminated: its staff scattered to other employment, its equipment sold off, its infrastructure allowed to sink into desuetude, the site effectively abandoned. Just a big, expensive hole in the volcanic tuff, a monument to the nation’s on-going nuclear follies.
Then the political balance of power picture changed again with Senator Reid’s retirement and the GOP/Trump ascendancy.
Back in 2014 the unashamedly ‘captive regulatory agency,’ the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), had set the stage for a potential Yucca revival by releasing a long-delayed report concluding that the Department of Energy had “demonstrated compliance with NRC regulatory requirements” that would limit leakage from the repository for the long-term.
A New York Times headline of the day trumpeted, “Calls to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, now deemed safe.” Rep. Congressman John Shimkus – from the nation’s most densely nuclearized state, Illinois – exulted, “Today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years.”
The Distinguished Gentleman from Illinois then introduced H.R 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018, which passed the House today.
Close analysis of the Shimkus Bill reveals that, if passed in its present form, it will:
– Preempt or jeopardize existing federal, state and local water and air rights, and rights to oversight, input, transparency, and other rights, including congressional oversight.
– Remove storage and transport safety requirements needed to prevent radioactive leaks.
– Provide inadequate funding to transport and store nuclear fuel waste.
– Make federal reimbursement for nuclear waste storage discretionary instead of mandatory.
– Allow ownership of nuclear fuel waste to be transferred to the Department of Energy (DOE) at existing nuclear utility sites, making them vulnerable to insufficient funding for nuclear waste storage. Current DOE nuclear waste sites have repeatedly leaked radiation into groundwater and air partly because of this. https://sanonofresafety.org/
Once upon some indefinite future date, when Yucca is deemed ready to take all that waste from ‘interim’ sites, it is slated to be moved again, for ‘permanent isolation’ in the site’s volcanic tuff.
There are many problems with this rosy scenario, of which more below. But chief among them, according to many critics – including former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky – is that “The NRC staff did not explain, and no one in the media seems to have caught on, that its favorable conclusion reflected the Energy Department’s pie-in-the-sky design for Yucca Mountain—not the repository as it is likely to be configured.
In his 2014 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, ‘Yucca Mountain redux,’ Gilinsky explains,
The [actual] likely repository configuration doesn’t come close to meeting NRC requirements. The key design element in question is something the Energy Department calls a “drip shield.” This is a kind of massive, corrosion-resistant titanium alloy mailbox that is supposed to sit over each of the thousands of waste canisters in Yucca Mountain’s underground tunnels. In NRC’s definition, it is designed “to prevent seepage water from directly dripping onto the waste package outer surface.”
The name drip shield itself is a giveaway that there is a water problem at Yucca Mountain. There is indeed a lot more water, and it is flowing faster, than the Energy Department imagined when it picked the site, which is why it added the drip shield to the original design. Without the titanium shields, dripping water would corrode the waste canisters placed in the repository and release radioactive waste, and the moving underground water would carry it to the nearby environment.
Using the corrosion data in the Energy Department’s license application, one can calculate that this corrosion would take not the “million years” cited by Mr. Shimkus, but about 1,000 years.
Nonetheless, the NRC-approved DOE plan – in an apparent attempt to make up-front costs more palatable to Congress – does not call for the installation of the ‘drip shields’ until a hundred years have passed.
Gilinsky concludes, “If you look more closely into the situation, you can’t escape the conclusion that it is highly implausible that the drip shields will ever be installed. In fact, as a practical matter, it may not even be physically possible to install them.”
Will the DOE, or the US government even exist in a hundred years? Will the know-how, institutional memory, technology, manufacturing base and funding still be available at that distant date to build the necessary infrastructure to allow robots to enter the highly radioactive, probably geologically degraded and possibly collapsed repository tunnels to perform the intricate operations required to install hypothetical ‘drip shields’ that have not as yet even been designed or fabricated?
And what deadly, irremediable leakage into the environment will by then have occurred?
Ian Zabarte, spokesperson for the Western Shoshone, calls this environmental racism.
Meanwhile, the bureaucratic, technological, budgetary and political impediments to actually restarting the project are legion, and sure to delay any real progress for years, if not decades.
Based on its record, there’s no use expecting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to act in the interest of public safety. Gilinsky points out that,
A truly independent regulatory agency—one truly representing the public interest—would not have been silent on the low likelihood that drip shields will ever be installed and would have insisted on getting the Energy Department’s calculations on what happens if the drip shields don’t get installed. What it comes down to is this: The NRC is going along with a shell game to advance the political fortunes of the Yucca Mountain project.
CIS – A Nuclear Shell Game – Fighting ‘Fukushima Freeway’
So just imagine, if you dare, the following proposed harebrained scenario known as ‘Consolidated Interim Storage’ or CIS:
For decades to come, ultra-heavy shipments of thousands of metric tons of high-level radioactive waste will become a common daily occurrence on America’s already rickety roads, railways and collapsing bridges, headed for the Southwest.
They will pass un-announced – but probably easily identified by those who know what to look for – through our nation’s towns and densely populated urban areas, vulnerable to human error, accidents and terrorist attacks.
Their deadly radiation fields – extending for a yard in every direction – will shower train passengers and motorists, unlucky enough to share those routes and be close enough, with DNA and immune system damage.
The shipment carriers will pull into gas stations, truck stops and roadside rest areas, exposing the luckless families, children and pregnant women nearby using those same facilities.
Then, if they do manage to reach their temporary, ‘interim’ waste consolidation sites without catastrophe, they will eventually hit the road again, on their way to the mythical Yucca repository.
Eighty percent of Nevada residents and elected officials strongly oppose this Yucca reboot plan. As before, their legal and technical opposition will prevent the plan from going forward for many years. Additionally, a new railroad line would need to be built through several mountain ranges at great expense. Will Congress provide the funding?
But, what might be more immediately enabled, are two proposed ‘interim storage facilities’ currently seeking NRC license approval on either side of the New Mexico-Texas border. A few politicians are promoting these sites as ‘good for the local economy,’ but public opposition is strong among those who know about the plan – including the region’s growers, dairy ranchers and especially oil men for whom the region is a fracking and drilling cash cow.
Both proposed sites are in what locals call ‘Nuclear Alley,’ just down the road from the Urenco uranium enrichment plant and the infamous Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIIP), site of the recent nuclear ‘cat litter’ explosion.
If approved as part of the Shimkus Bill’s Consolidated Interim Storage provision, these ‘parking lot’ dumps could well become the nation’s de facto permanent radioactive waste depository, in the very likely event that Yucca never gets built.
More on that in future articles, except to note that the dire implications of CIS and its ‘Fukuishima Freeway’ failed to be acknowledged in the House’s approval of HR 3053.
For more, check out the Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s Don’t Waste America page.
As posted MAY 17, 2018 by JAMES HEDDLE at https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/05/17/yucca-redux-and-the-nuclear-shell-game/
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization announced today – through the World Nuclear News – that it had signed another set of agreements to share information with a group of companies all pretty similar to themselves. The agreements were signed as part of the opening show of a meeting of the “International Association for Environmentally Safe Disposal of Radioactive Materials”. EDRAM is made up of proponents of nuclear waste burial projects, none of them yet approved or operating, despite decades of effort.
15 May 2018
Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has signed or renewed cooperation agreements with counterparts from five countries: Belgium, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. The organisation has previously signed such agreements with nuclear waste management organisations in Finland, South Korea and Japan.
|NWMO’s Swami (right), signs an agreement with Thomas Ernst, CEO of Nagra
NWMO signed or renewed cooperation agreements with Belgian national radioactive waste management agency Ondraf; French radioactive waste management agency Andra; Swedish waste and fuel management company Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB; Switzerland’s national radioactive waste disposal cooperative Nagra; and the Radioactive Waste Management Limited subsidiary of the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
The agreements were signed yesterday in Toronto at the opening reception of the International Association for Environmentally Safe Disposal of Radioactive Materials’ (EDRAM’s) annual meeting. EDRAM promotes the exchange of knowledge among member countries.
NWMO President and CEO Laurie Swami said, “As our work to identify a single, preferred site for a deep geological repository intensifies, now is the perfect time to renew and sign knowledge-sharing agreements with our international partners. These agreements ensure we are applying the best international practice to Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel, and sharing our experience with our global counterparts.”
NWMO is implementing Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel. The organisation was created in 2002 by Canada’s nuclear electricity producers. Ontario Power Generation, NB Power and Hydro-Québec are the founding members and, along with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, fund NWMO’s operations. The NWMO operates on a not-for-profit basis and derives its mandate from the federal Nuclear Fuel Waste Act.
The organisation launched the process to find a suitable site for a Canadian repository in 2010, and has progressively narrowed down study areas from a list of 21 communities that registered interest. Five sites – all in Ontario – now remain: Ignace, Hornepayne, Huron-Kinloss, Manitouwadge and South Bruce. The NWMO completed drilling of its first borehole at Ignace in January, and has said it expects to be able to select the preferred site for detailed site characterisation by around 2023.
Kim Rudd, parliamentary secretary to Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr, attended yesterday’s signing ceremony and said: “As it makes steady progress in implementing Canada’s plan, I am pleased that the NWMO is sharing Canadian research and innovation with the rest of the world, and learning from the experiences and knowledge of other countries. Collaboration of this sort is vital in the global imperative to safely manage used nuclear fuel to protect people and the environment.”
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News
US DOE has cancelled the always-questionable plan to build a MOX fuel fabrication plant at Savannah River, designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor. New plan: the US Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration is proposing that the South Carolina site instead begin producing plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons, better known as plutonium pits.
The MOX fuel scheme first emerged under the guise of arms control. The United States signed a pact with Russia in 2000 agreeing to dispose of a certain amount of the Cold War-era fissile material from both countries, a deal that was seen as an arms-control milestone. Relations between the United States and Russia soured and Moscow pulled out of the pact in 2016 citing Washington’s noncompliance.
Billions of dollars later, Energy Department pulls plug on partly built nuclear fuel plant
The Energy Department’s Savannah River site, which the Trump administration has decided not to complete, shown in January. (Reuters)
The Trump administration is pulling the plug on a South Carolina facility designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel that the U.S. government has already spent billions to partially build.
Even though construction will end, the Trump administration wants to spend billions more to wind down the project and retrofit the plant for a new mission, namely, the production of triggers for nuclear weapons.
The decision marks the culmination of a years-long effort by both the Trump and Obama administrations to end construction of the plant, actions that the South Carolina delegation in Congress blocked, preserving a source of jobs and federal funding in their districts.
The original idea behind the facility near the Savannah River in Aiken, S.C., was to take tons of excess plutonium that the United States produced during the Cold War for nuclear weapons and convert the dangerous material into mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel for commercial reactors. The United States signed a pact with Russia in 2000 agreeing to dispose of a certain amount of the Cold War-era fissile material from both countries, a deal that was seen as an arms-control milestone.
But since construction of the South Carolina facility began, the project has become mired in lawsuits, delays and budget overruns, emerging as a prime example of waste and mismanagement by the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Meanwhile, relations between the United States and Russia soured, and Moscow pulled out of the pact in 2016, citing Washington’s noncompliance.
As the woes and costsmounted, U.S. officials in Washington began to see the wisdom of killing the South Carolina project altogether. The contractor — a joint venture of Chicago Iron & Steel and the French nuclear giant Areva — repeatedly fell short of goals. Estimates for finishing the plant’s construction alone ballooned to $17 billion last year.
Estimates submitted to Congress by the NNSA said the government will have sunk an estimated $7.6 billion into the MOX facility by its closure and would need to spend nearly $50 billion more to finish construction and convert the plutonium over the coming decades, according to people familiar with the estimate. The government believes that diluting and disposing of the plutonium will instead cost about $18.2 billion over about 30 years, they said.
“The decision to abandon the MOX project is the only reasonable decision as the MOX project isn’t viable technically or financially,” said Tom Clements, director of the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch and one of the project’s sharpest critics. “What a monumental waste this has been.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry authorized the termination of construction in a document this week and promised to remove the 34 metric tons of plutonium the federal government had intended to convert at the facility from the state of South Carolina. The department now intends to dilute the plutonium with nonradioactive materials and dispose of it in a repository for defense waste in New Mexico.
“Several independent assessments have found the alternative dilute and dispose method to be a faster, less expensive, and less risky alternative to MOX,” the NNSA said in a statement. “The Department of Energy is committed to meetings its obligation to the state of South Carolina to securely process and remove plutonium from the state.”
In 2015, a group of more than a dozen prominent former arms negotiators and senior diplomats sent a letter to then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz saying the project was a threat to nonproliferation efforts. Many arms control advocates say that using plutonium for civilian purposes is unnecessary and uneconomical.
Lawmakers from South Carolina lashed out at Perry’s decision to terminate construction of the plant. In a joint statement, the state’s two senators, Republicans Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott, joined five of its congressmen, Republicans Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Tom Rice, Trey Gowdy and Ralph Norman, in accusing the Energy Department of abandoning “one of the most important nonproliferation programs in the history of the world.”
The South Carolina lawmakers say the Energy Department’s new plan to dilute and dispose of the plutonium in New Mexico not only lacks approval from the state but also goes against what the United States and Russia agreed to in the 2000 pact. They say the plan has a questionable chance of success.
The NNSA is proposing that the South Carolina site instead begin producing plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons, better known as plutonium pits. The Pentagon wants the U.S. government to be able to produce 30 plutonium pits a year by 2026 and 80 a year by 2030 to sustain the military’s plans for its nuclear weapons. The only facility currently capable of producing them, Los Alamos National Laboratory, has yet to make one suitable for a nuclear weapon.
The Pentagon and the NNSA are now proposing that both Los Alamos in New Mexico and Savannah River in South Carolina produce plutonium pits, arguing that the military should not rely on a single facility for production.
“This two-prong approach — with at least 50 pits per year produced at Savannah River and at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos — is the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking,” the NNSA’s administrator, Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, said in a joint statement Thursday with Ellen M. Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.
The South Carolina lawmakers expressed support for production of plutonium pits at the Savannah River site but said they were concerned that Congress would be skeptical of the move. The New Mexico delegation wants Los Alamos to produce all of the pits. Some officials familiar with the plans are worried that the conversion of the South Carolina site to a new mission could cause more cost overruns.
Whether the military needs so many plutonium pits is a point of dispute. Some disarmament advocates say the military has enough old pits from dismantled weapons that will last for years and shouldn’t spend millions of dollars to produce new ones. But U.S. generals say the military shouldn’t count on old triggers and must replace the pits over time.
Paul Sonne covers the U.S. military and national security. He previously reported for the Wall Street Journal from Moscow, London and Washington.
Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial matters. Since joining The Washington Post in 1989, he has covered economic policy, China, U.S. diplomacy, energy and the White House. Earlier he worked for The Wall Street Journal in New York, London and Johannesburg.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 that would protect the Great Lakes from nuclear waste.
The amendment states the governments of the United States and Canada should not allow the permanent or long-term storage of radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel, near the Great Lakes. The amendment now moves to the U.S. Senate floor as part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018 for further consideration.
It was written in response to Ontario Power Generation request for approval to build a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste in Kincardine, Ontario, less than one mile from Lake Huron.
“The Great Lakes are the lifeblood of our great state,” U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) said. “Right now, we have four spent nuclear fuel sites, including two in Southwest Michigan right on the shores of Lake Michigan. Keeping spent fuel there in perpetuity is not an option, especially when a permanent, responsible solution has long been available. This amendment sends a bipartisan message that we will continue working to protect our Great Lakes for future generations.”
The amendment was cosponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI).
More than 35 million people rely on the Great Lakes for jobs or drinking water, and the lakes are 20 percent of the world’s freshwater.
Ten percent of Americans live in the Great Lakes basin.
Published on May 14, 2018 by Melina Druga