February 8, 2002 

Honorable Spencer Abraham
Secretary of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20585 

Supplemental EIS Needed on Plutonium Disposition

Dear Secretary Abraham: 

I am writing to you on behalf of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) regarding the January 23, 2002 announcement by the Department of Energy (DOE or the Department) that it is adopting a revised strategy for disposing of plutonium declared surplus to defense needs. As explained below, NCI maintains that the Department is required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. 4321, et seq. (NEPA), to prepare, circulate for comment and issue a supplement to its Surplus Plutonium Disposition Final Environmental Impact Statement (DOE/EIS-0283, November 1999) (the SPD EIS) in connection with this action. 

In the January 23 announcement of its Revised Plutonium Disposition Strategy (the RPDS), DOE revealed that 6.4 metric tons (MT) of plutonium previously destined for immobilization were now slated for disposal via mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) irradiation. For such disposal to take place, DOE noted that this plutonium would first have to be sent through an enhanced purification capability at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (the MFFF), a facility being planned for DOEs Savannah River Site (SRS). Further, DOE stated that 2 MT of very impure plutonium, which were also previously destined for immobilization, would be sent directly to waste. No further information was given about the additional plutonium to be processed for use as MOX or about what equipment was needed for enhanced purification. The February 4, 2002 DOE briefing on the budget request for Fiscal Year 2003 affirmed the significant revisions in the approach to plutonium disposition, though many questions were unanswered as to how the program will be carried out. 

In the SPD EIS, DOE identified a hybrid approach as its preferred alternative for plutonium disposition. As stated by DOE in the summary section of the SPD EIS, the hybrid approach allows for the immobilization of 17 metric tons (19 tons) of surplus plutonium and the use of 33 metric tons (36 tons) as MOX fuel. DOE further stated that about 34 percent of the surplus plutonium analyzed in the SPD EIS is not suitable for fabrication into MOX fuel due to the complexity, timing, and cost that would be involved in purifying the material. DOE went on the say that, since the issuance of the Storage and Disposition PEIS Record of Decision in January 1997, further consideration has indicated that 17 t (19 tons) of surplus plutonium is [sic] not suitable for use in MOX fuel and should be immobilized. Therefore, fabricating all 50 t (55 tons) of surplus plutonium into MOX is not a reasonable alternative and is not analyzed. The SPD EIS does, however, analyze the immobilization of all surplus plutonium. None of the 15 alternatives considered in the SPD EIS included processing for MOX of the 17 metric tons designated for immobilization. In the SPD EIS, SRS was identified as the site for both the immobilization and MOX missions. The January 11, 2000 Record of Decision for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Final Environmental Impact Statement affirmed that the Department has decided to use a hybrid approach for the disposition of surplus plutonium and that this approach allows for immobilization of approximately 17 metric tons of surplus plutonium and use of up 33 metric tons of surplus plutonium as MOX fuel. 

The U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement, signed on September 1, 2000, also incorporated a hybrid approach. The United States agreed to dispose of 34 MT of plutonium, declaring 8.4 MT to be disposed of via immobilization and 25.6 MT as MOX. The 8.4 MT included in the agreement for immobilization is consistent with figures from DOEs NEPA documentation for the amount of plutonium that had to be immobilized due to problems in converting it to a form suitable for fabrication as MOX fuel. While the RPDS is nominally based on the 34 MT in that agreement, the agreements Annex on Quantities, Forms, Locations and Methods of Disposition will have to be revised due to the announced increase in the amount of plutonium going to MOX. Similarly, the Annex on Schedules and Milestones will have to be revised due to changes in the schedule for operation of the MFFF as well as the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility.  

The 6.4 MT now being shifted from immobilization to MOX is significantly less pure than the 25.6 MT designated for MOX in the U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement. This 6.4 MT include plutonium materials which would require extensive purification to use in MOX fuel, according to DOEs Record of Decision for the Disposition and Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DOE/EIS-0229, December 1996). That Record of Decision goes on to say that DOE will immobilize at least 8 metric tons (MT) of currently declared surplus plutonium materials that DOE has already determined are not suitable for use in MOX fuel. In footnote number 26 in the ROD, DOE states that the decision does not preclude immobilizing all of the surplus plutonium, but it does preclude using the MOX/reactor approach for all of the material.  

The difficulty of utilizing plutonium previously destined for immobilization in the MOX program has been underscored in the licensing proceeding for the MFFF now pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions Atomic Safety Licensing Board. In that proceeding, the license applicant, Duke Cogema Stone & Webster, in its Environmental Review for the facility, has flatly characterized this material as plutonium that cannot be converted to mixed oxide fuel.

The Departments regulations implementing NEPA specifically require the Department to prepare a supplemental EIS if there are substantial changes to the proposal . . . . 10 C.F.R. 1021.314(a). See also 40 C.F.R. 1502.9(c)(1)(i) (requiring supplement where [t]he agency makes substantial changes in the proposed action that are relevant to environmental concerns). The Departments NEPA regulations further specify that the Department shall prepare, circulate and file a supplement to a draft or final EIS in the same manner as any other draft and final EISs. 10 C.F.R. 1021.314(d). Finally, even if it is merely unclear whether a supplement is required, the Departments regulations call for preparation of a publicly available Supplement Analysis which discuss[es] the circumstances that are pertinent to deciding whether to prepare a supplemental EIS. 10 C.F.R. 1021.314(c).

NCI submits the Departments revisions to its surplus plutonium disposition program plainly involve substantial changes to the proposal within the meaning of the Departments NEPA regulations. As discussed above, DOE, until January 23, 2002, consistently stated that a certain amount of plutonium was unsuitable for MOX and had to be immobilized. Due to this fact, DOE never considered under NEPA the environmental implications of processing plutonium materials slated for immobilization for use as MOX. Among other things, DOE has carried out no NEPA analysis of the environmental impacts associated with operating equipment needed for enhanced purification. It is clear that there will be significant waste streams associated with purification of these plutonium materials. Due to impurities in these materials, the waste streams will be different from those associated with the materials always slated for MOX use. The impact on waste management at SRS, particularly the high-level waste tanks, thus requires analysis in a Supplemental EIS (SEIS).

Additionally, DOE stated in the Record of Decision for the SPD EIS that pursuing both immobilization and MOX fuel fabrication also provides important assurance against uncertainties of implementing either approach by itself. It spite of this long-held policy of maintaining both options, DOE has now fully reversed its position and discarded immobilization with no discussion as to why such a step is prudent from an environmental, waste management, or non-proliferation perspective. Justification for the elimination of the hybrid approach must be fully explained in an SEIS.

The changes to the plutonium disposition program must be addressed by the Department under NEPA as part of its decision-making process on disposition options available to the United States. Further, only a supplement to the SPD EIS will fulfill NEPAs twin purposes of ensuring full public disclosure of the potential environmental consequences of agency action and informed decision-making by government officials. Preparation of a supplement, in NCIs view, is in fact essential in order for the Department to have an adequate record, which comprehensively assesses the environmental consequences of plutonium disposition options and, in particular, processing of plutonium for use as MOX fuel in domestic light-water reactors.

Thank you for your consideration of our views. We look forward to a prompt response.


Tom Clements