Plutonium Plan Gets Criticized [Albuquerque Journal, N.M.]By T.S. Last, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 24--People opposed to a Department of Energy proposed plan to ship tons of plutonium to New Mexico spoke out during a public hearing in Santa Fe on Thursday night. Concerns ranged from the health, welfare and safety of New Mexicans to the ethics and legality of the preferred plan outlined by the DOE.
While a hearing in Los Alamos on Tuesday drew about 30 people, according to an official from Los Alamos National Laboratory, close to 100 showed up for Thursday's hearing at a Santa Fe hotel. One more hearing is scheduled in Carlsbad next Tuesday.
The purpose of the hearings is to help decide how the federal government should dispose of 13.1 metric tons of surplus plutonium.
The problem arose after budget cuts caused the DOE to abandon plans to build a plant for dismantling parts from old nuclear warheads in South Carolina. The government had already invested $382 million and 13 years in the project.
Now, under the DOE's preferred plan, 7.1 metric tons of pits, or cores, stored at the Pantex plant in West Texas would be shipped to LANL and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina for disarmament. The plutonium in the bomb parts would be converted to feedstock for fueling commercial nuclear reactors.
In addition, 6 tons of surplus plutonium from Savannah River would be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and buried 2,150 feet underground.
More than two dozen people spoke at Thursday's hearing, and attendees were invited to submit written comments, but only two spoke in favor of the plan.
David Clark and Joe Martz, both LANL employees who said they were speaking as private citizens, supported the draft plan. Both said LANL had the personnel capable of handling the material that would be sent to the lab.
"Los Alamos already has the work force with the depth of knowledge and skill," Clark said. "My view is storing underground will not reduce the amount of surplus plutonium. The only method is by using MOX fuel in a reactor."
Martz agreed that MOX, a low-enriched uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors, is the best alternative for disposition.
"It's the only (alternative) that disposes of it by burning in nuclear reactors," he said, adding that 10 percent of the energy used in the United States comes from plutonium.
But Susan Gordon, director of the Santa Fe-based Alliance of Nuclear Accountability, said the plan doesn't address how MOX will be used.
"No MOX plant operational schedule is presented, no plan or schedule for MOX testing in (Tennessee Valley Authority) or 'generic' reactors is presented, and no schedule for full-scale use of MOX is presented. Therefore, no Record of Decision can be issued," she said.
Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program for the Southwest Research and Information Center, went one step further. He said the current plan is illegal, because the consideration of the use of WIPP and LANL facilities isn't mentioned in the original Surplus Plutonium Disposition Environmental Impact Statement.
"The draft document doesn't address fundamental laws," he said. "If this goes final, it will be illegal. DOE should start over."
Several other speakers agreed that DOE should start over, while others suggested modifications that would keep shipments from coming to New Mexico.
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the conversion facility should be located at Pantex, where the pits are currently being stored. He also said the MOX program was a "house of cards" and a nuclear boondoggle that only enriches the contractors.
In addition, he said introducing plutonium to the commercial market at nuclear plants was not a well thought out idea.
Others spoke of concerns surrounding both the WIPP and LANL sites.
WIPP, which is already receiving low-level radioactive waste from LANL and other sites, may not have the space to accommodate the surplus plutonium from Savannah River.
A few people spoke about safety concerns at LANL's PF-4 facility, a 1970s-era building found to be built over fault lines that could be susceptible to a major earthquake.
The concrete blockhouse, used to build new plutonium bomb parts, is where the research and development work on pit dismantlement was conducted. At that time the plan was for the system to be implemented at Savannah River. The DOE is now considering using the equipment used in the research to do the disarmament work at Los Alamos.
I n add it ion, conc er n s already exist over the thousands of barrels of low-level radioactive waste currently stored above ground at LANL. Last year, the Las Conchas Fire came within a few hundred yards of the area where the waste is stored.
Joan Brown, a Franciscan sister and member of Pax Christi, an international Catholic movement, was one of several people who spoke passionately against the idea of bringing more nuclear material to New Mexico. She said it was an issue of morality and environmental justice and the intelligent minds at LANL should be put to better tasks, such as global warming.
"New Mexico has become a sacrificial zone. It's irresponsible to bring more into this zone," she said.
The public comment period ends Sept. 25. A Record of Decision will be rendered within 30 days of a Notice of Availability of the final environmental impact statement, which is expected to be completed by next spring.
(c)2012 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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