TO RESTORE FULL FUNDING
Immobilization in Waste Is 'Cheaper, Faster, Safer'
Washington, DC---The Nuclear Control Institute today called on Congress to restore full funding for the Department of Energy's program to immobilize surplus weapons plutonium in highly radioactive waste. The program is now slated to be terminated in 2002, leaving no way to dispose of plutonium wastes that are to be shipped to DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
"Continued funding of plutonium immobilization is vital if the United States is to meet its arms control and non-proliferation obligations in a safe, cost-effective manner and if it is to have a path forward for disposal of plutonium wastes," wrote NCI President Paul Leventhal and NCI Research Director Steven Dolley in a letter to Senators and Representatives who will meet next month to resolve DOE's budget for the coming fiscal year. NCI is a non-profit research and advocacy center focusing on non-proliferation issues.
Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham recently acceded to demands by South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges that shipments of surplus plutonium to Savannah River from DOE's shut-down Rocky Flats plant in Colorado be suspended until there is a mutually agreeable plan for disposition and removal of the plutonium from Savannah River. Hodges responded with a letter to Abraham demanding that DOE's commitment be put in writing with enforceable milestones and deadlines. (Hodges' letter, direct link: http://www.nci.org/01nci/08/hodges-letter.htm). Hodges had threatened to use the state police to block the shipments, which were due to begin in October.
NCI's letter noted that last September, the United States and Russia signed an agreement requiring each to dispose of some 34 tons of surplus military plutonium either directly as waste by means of immobilization or by irradiation in commercial nuclear-power reactors as mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel. But in the past year, NCI stated, "the MOX approach has encountered a series of problems, including a DOE study estimating a life-cycle cost of $5.4 billion, 66% more than DOE's 1999 estimate" while "immobilization has not suffered the large increases that the MOX program has."
Recent reports suggest that the Bush Administration may decide to eliminate the MOX approach altogether, making continued funding for immobilization all the more urgent. However, the Administration is requesting only $3 million for immobilization in its fiscal year 2002 budget, "just enough to terminate the programand make timely restoration of the immobilization option all but impossible," according to NCI's letter. NCI urged that the amount be raised to $25 million to provide full funding for immobilization and to ensure that tens of tons of dangerous plutonium waste are not stranded at Savannah River and other DOE sites.
NCI's letter to the House and Senate conferees follows. More information on immobilization and MOX is available at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm