Nuclear wasteActivists in arms over plans to ship plutonium to New Mexico

Published 29 August 2012

A proposal to ship tons of plutonium to New Mexico, including cores of nuclear warheads which would be dismantled at a structurally questionable lab on top of an earthquake fault zone, has activists and nuclear watchdogs up in arms

A proposal to ship tons of plutonium to New Mexico, including cores of nuclear warheads which would be dismantled at a structurally questionable lab on top of an earthquake fault zone, has activists and nuclear watchdogs up in arms.

The people opposing the proposal voiced their opinions at a series of public hearings which opened this week, as the federal government works to reduce the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Fox news reports that federal budget cuts have hampered the Department of Energy’s ability to find alternatives to dispose of the plutonium. There were plans for multibillion-dollar facility to be built in South Carolina, but those plans have since fell through as part of the cuts.

Under the proposal, 7.1 metric tons of cores of an unknown number of nuclear warheads which are now at the Pantex plant in West Texas will be moved to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the site of the Manhattan Project, and the Savannah River Site, for disarmament and processing into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

The proposal also calls for another six tons of plutonium to be buried at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The proposal has caused concern that the waste would take up space which is already being used for disposing thousands of barrels of low-level radioactive waste that has been sitting above ground for years at a dump in Los Alamos.

A wildfire on the lab property in 2011 drew attention to the site as well as safety concerns.

Activists are concerned about the safety of bringing more plutonium to the Loa Alamos lab, known as PF-4, which was built in the 1970s. A federal oversight board has said that the facility is structurally unable to withstand a major earthquake and that the lab was built over fault lines that were later found to have the potential for severe earthquakes.

Also the Defense Nuclear Safety Facilities Board has said officials have greatly underestimated how much radiation would be released in the event of a major earthquake.

Greg Millo, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said he could not understand why the lab is being considered as an option “when these very basic problems have not been resolved.”

We are talking about a very large new mission, a type of mission for which this building was not designed,” Mello said during the initial hearing on the proposal.

David Clark, a chemist and plutonium expert at the lab, thinks that the building is more than suited for the project. “They are disassembling pits today,” Clark said at the hearing. “They are doing it right now. It is already part of the mission. … They have the knowledge.”

Clark told Fox News he has worked at the lab for ten years and has no concerns about safety, and as with other lab officials, Clarks said the PF-4 building is exactly where he would want to be in an earthquake,andthat hethinks that the lab taking the surplus plutonium would have little impact on staff operations.

This is not going to make a dent,” he said.
Clark said the point is to ensure the plutonium can never be used in a nuclear weapon, and turning the cores into MOX fuel is the best option.

MOX is a proven fuel that is used around the world, in a variety of reactors,” he said. “Storing plutonium glass or ceramic in canisters or underground will not reduce the global inventories. As a chemist, such waste forms may slow me down, but I can still recover the plutonium. The only one of these options that will destroy plutonium … or make it unsuitable for weapons … is to burn it in a nuclear reactor. ”

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