FOIA document indicates cost of disposal of U.S. plutonium as waste cheaper than MOX

Guest contribution by Tom Clements, Southeastern Nuclear Campaign Coordinator, Friends of the Earth, Columbia, South Carolina,

The U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina is the department's storage site for surplus weapon-grade plutonium that was never fabricated into the spherical "pit" used in nuclear weapons.  SRS has now accumulated approximately 13 tonnes of plutonium, stored in one of the closed reactors earlier used to produce plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.

A key factor in determining a plutonium disposition option for both the SRS plutonium and also for pits being removed from retired nuclear weapons is the cost to prepare and dispose of the plutonium.  A document recently obtained from DOE under the Freedom of information Act (FOIA) shows that preparation of plutonium at SRS for disposal in DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is about $100,000/kg.  This appears to be far below the cost of processing plutonium into mixed plutonium uranium oxide fuel (MOX).  Already, some non-MOXable plutonium stored at SRS has been packaged for disposal in WIPP and DOE has stated that "the WIPP Alternative, provide[s] protection from theft, diversion, or future reuse in nuclear weapons akin to that afforded by the Spent Fuel Standard [radiation barrier]."

In April 2013, DOE announced that it was conducting an "assessment" of plutonium disposition options due to massive cost increases and scheduling delays associated with the construction of a facility at SRS to make MOX from surplus plutonium.  According to DOE budget figures, the cost of the MOX plant, designed by AREVA, has jumped from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $4.8 billion in 2008 to the current estimate of $7.7 billion and estimated annual operating costs of the MOX plant have soared to an estimated $543 million/year.  Preparation as MOX fuel of 34 tonnes of surplus U.S. plutonium, the amount covered in the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement with Russia, which can be changed by mutual agreement of the parties, will greatly exceed the cost of preparation for disposal in WIPP.

Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz appointed a senior adviser to conduct the plutonium disposition assessment and it is believed that three options are on the table: continued pursuit of MOX fuel, immobilization in existing high-level nuclear waste at SRS and disposal of plutonium as transuranic waste in WIPP.  An announcement about the selected option could come soon or be postponed until after the budget for Fiscal Year 2015 becomes clear.

While it is unknown when a final decision will be made, the DOE's schedule of key environmental documents reveals that the release of a final Environmental Impact Statement on plutonium disposal options has again been postponed and is "under department review." The contract for preparation of that EIS, which had been set to be released in October 2012, was recently changed, indicating that a policy decision based on the EIS might not be made until April 2014.