[NCI Logo]

September 16, 1998

Office of Fissile Materials Disposition
U.S. Department of Energy
P.O. Box 23786
Washington, DC 20026-3786

Comments of the Nuclear Control Institute
on the Surplus Plutonium Disposition
Draft Environmental Impact Statement

The Nuclear Control Institute ("NCI") submits the following comments on the Department of Energy's Surplus Plutonium Disposition Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DOE/EIS-0283-D, July 1998) ("draft EIS"). Bracketed page numbers in these comments refer to this document.  [Bracketed numbers in boldface are end notes.]

1. The Department of Energy should utilize exclusively the immobilization approach to surplus plutonium disposition in the United States. The MOX approach under the "dual track" disposition policy is not justified even if there is a need to proceed in parallel with Russia.

DOE's January 1997 Record of Decision on Plutonium Disposition outlined a "dual track" approach utilizing both immobilization and MOX. The Department has defended this approach as a prerequisite to working in parallel with Russian counterparts who view plutonium as "national treasure" and are unwilling to dispose of it as waste. NCI remains unconvinced by this argument, for reasons explained in detail elsewhere.  [1]

However, DOE's rationale for the "dual track" was recently superseded by the plutonium disposition agreement signed by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin at their Moscow summit meeting. This agreement marked Russia's first formal acknowledgement of the acceptability of the immobilization approach. The agreement specifies that "[t]he two governments will cooperate to pursue this goal [of each nation disposing of 50 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium] through consumption of plutonium fuel in existing nuclear reactors (or reactors which may enter into service during the duration of our cooperation) or the immobilization of plutonium in glass or ceramic form mixed with high-level radioactive waste."  [2] [emphasis added]

In light of this agreement, and DOE's acknowledgement in both the ROD and draft EIS that it is technically feasible to immobilize all 50 tons of surplus U.S. weapons plutonium, there is no imperative to pursue a MOX approach in the United States at all. DOE's own studies demonstrate that immobilization would be cheaper, faster and safer than the MOX approach,  [3] and is therefore the more desirable method now that it is clear MOX need not be pursued in the United States to satisfy Russian concerns.

In the most straightforward sense, immobilization has clear-cut environmental and safety advantages. Fewer processing stages, fewer facilities, and less transportation are involved with immobilization than with MOX. The immobilization-only approach also offers great flexibility for the U.S. disposition program. If desired, the United States could promptly and unilaterally immobilize all 50 tons of its surplus plutonium, as a demonstration and incentive to Russian disposition. If parallelism and Russian reciprocity were deemed important but did not materialize, a U.S. immobilization-only approach could be put on hold with far less disruption than a MOX/reactor approach.

2. The draft EIS comparison of MOX and immobilization is unfairly skewed in favor of MOX.

The draft EIS assesses site-specific environmental impacts of the immobilization process all the way through to production of the final waste form. The MOX approach, on the other hand, is only analyzed on a generic basis after the point at which fresh MOX fuel is fabricated. Analysis of environmental and safety questions related to use of specific reactors and storage of spent MOX fuel is relegated to a separate "environmental critique" which will not be available until the final EIS is released. This provides an unbalanced comparison of the MOX and immobilization options. NCI is preparing an in-depth technical analysis of safety issues related to the use of weapons-plutonium MOX fuel in light-water reactors, and this analysis would be greatly enhanced by the availability of reactor-specific data. Environmental impacts of MOX fuel use could vary widely from site to site (i.e., the North Anna plant vs. WNP-2). Therefore, issuance of the final EIS should be deferred until the public has a reasonable opportunity to review and comment upon the reactor-specific environmental critique.

3. Issues related to plutonium oxide "hold up" in the MOX fuel fabrication facility should be addressed.

In modern MOX fuel fabrication facilities, almost all operations are carried out by remote handling in glove boxes. Significant portions of the plutonium oxide throughput of these plants can become "held up" in these glove boxes. Since opening in 1988, the small, pilot PFPF MOX plant in Japan accumulated a hold-up of over 70 kilograms of plutonium, and the plant operator was eventually required by the International Atomic Energy Agency to clean out and account for this material, at a cost of over $100 million.

NCI has expressed concern about the hold-up issue in a non-proliferation and safeguards context.  [4] From a NEPA perspective, it should be noted that plutonium hold-up constitutes a safety and health risk, not only to MOX plant workers but to the general public by increasing the plant's source term in case of an accident. If required later because of excessive hold-up, a full facility clean-out would also pose significant risks of worker exposure to plutonium. The draft EIS does not address the hold-up issue. It is important that the final EIS do so.

4. The "plutonium polishing" option should not be pursued.

DOE has offered respondents to its request for proposals for MOX disposition work the opportunity to propose aqueous processing, so-called "plutonium polishing," to remove gallium and other impurities from plutonium prior to its fabrication into MOX fuel. The detrimental effects of gallium on fuel cladding and reactor safety have not been fully documented and could prove significant. "Plutonium polishing" would significantly increase the environmental impact of the MOX option by creating large amounts of TRU and low-level waste, an increase of 10 to 20 percent over non-polishing options.  [5] It would also contravene U.S. non-proliferation policy, in that it would be likely to provide strong support of Russia's plans for aqueous treatment of its own surplus weapons plutonium. Because trace amounts of gallium do not affect the immobilization process or final waste form, the plutonium polishing step could be avoided entirely if the U.S. were to pursue an immobilization-only approach.

5. Lengthy storage of fresh MOX fuel at reactor sites poses security risks and should be avoided.

The draft EIS foresees a 10-year operational life for the MOX fabrication plant, but considerable additional time, possibly years, would be required to cycle all this MOX fuel through reactors. NCI objects to long-term storage of fresh MOX fuel at reactor sites on security grounds. Such fresh MOX fuel lacks a radiation barrier, and if stolen, weapons-grade plutonium could be separated from this MOX by straightforward chemical means. EDF, the French nuclear utility, does not permit fresh MOX fuel to be stored at its reactor sites for more than two weeks, and does not allow any dry storage of such fresh fuel.  [6] The same strict security requirement should be imposed on MOX fuel storage, and the additional costs of meeting this storage standard, and of additional security at reactor sites, should be included in the EIS.

6. The "216 process" is an inappropriate approach to safety analysis of MOX candidate reactors.

DOE proposes to analyze environmental impacts of specific commercial reactors offered by consortia for MOX fuel irradiation by means of the process specified in 10 CFR 1021.216 (the "216 process"). This regulatory language is part of DOE's NEPA Implementing Regulations, and provides for an "environmental critique," to be prepared by DOE, which "may contain proprietary information which will, therefore, not be made available to the public." [p. S-12] A synopsis will be published in the final EIS, but the full environmental critique would never be made public.

The proposed implementation of the 216 process is entirely unacceptable. First, DOE has indicated that consortia bidders will have complete discretion to determine which information they submit to DOE should be considered "proprietary" and withheld from the public. Thus, any information bearing on the safety of reactors fueled with MOX that the industry does not want subjected to public scrutiny could be withheld. Second, the public synopsis would not be made available until the final EIS is released, i.e., after the public input process under NEPA is completed. Public comments on the final EIS are unlikely to have any significant impact on DOE's record of decision.

An example of the abuse that can arise from excessive discretion to withhold release of "proprietary" data in regulatory proceedings is the recent revelation in Great Britain that "a supposedly independent report by the accountancy firm Touche Ross - used to provide the economic justification for the Thorp reprocessing plant - had never been drawn up....Environmentalists, independent scientists and the Labour Party in opposition all called for the report to be published, but BNFL which runs Sellafield, refused to do so on the grounds that it was commercially confidential. Recently the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, asked to see the report but was told, to his amazement, that it did not exist."  [7]

DOE has discretion to apply the standards of law in order to determine whether data that the consortia want to be withheld in fact meets these standards. DOE should review this material, with a presumption in favor of public release. The provisions of DOE NEPA regulations which require withholding of "commercially confidential" information should be narrowly interpreted and applied, in order to assure that the maximum amount of data is made available to the public consistent with the requirements of law. The Department should err on the side of disclosing, rather than withholding, and this policy governing the 216 process should be stated clearly in the final EIS.

7. Issues related to burnup levels of irradiated MOX fuel should be addressed.

The draft EIS merely refers to the 1996 PEIS's generic safety analysis of MOX fuel irradiation in LWRs. It does not incorporate new information on safety issues related to the burnup level of MOX fuel. In light of recent findings that "MOX fuel shows a higher failure potential than UO2 at comparable burn up," as revealed by a recent MOX fuel experiment at the Cabri test reactor in France,  [8] significant consideration should be given to limiting average burnup of MOX fuel to the regulatory ceiling of 36,000 MW-D/MTHM now imposed in France.  [9] This is the only way to avoid with assurance the risks associated with the propensity of high-burnup MOX fuel to catastrophically rupture in the event of reactivity transients or loss-of-coolant accidents (LOCAs).

This problem may be more severe for weapons-grade MOX because the phenomenon believed to be responsible for the inferior behavior of MOX fuel (locally high burnups and fission gas release because of the inhomogenous distribution of plutonium in MOX fuel) would be exacerbated by the higher fission rates that occur in weapons-grade plutonium.

8. Additional NEPA analyses might be required.

A number of significant federal actions are mentioned in the draft EIS as potential options that might be pursued in the disposition program. These actions include the "plutonium polishing" option, irradiation of U.S. and Russian MOX in CANDU reactors in Canada, and fueling the Fast Flux Test Reactor (FFTF) with weapons-plutonium MOX to produce tritium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. We note and concur with DOE's position in the draft EIS that, in each case, additional NEPA analysis beyond the SPD EIS would be required if any of these actions were to be pursued.


Steven Dolley

Research Director

End Notes

1. Edwin S. Lyman and Paul Leventhal, "Bury the Stuff," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1997, pp. 45-48.

2. "Joint Statement of Principles for Management and Disposition of Plutonium Designated as No Longer Required for Defense Purposes," September 2, 1998.

3.  For example, ceramic can-in-canister immobilization could begin two year sooner than a MOX-immobilization "hybrid option," and be completed six years sooner.  U.S. DOE, Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Technical Summary Report for Surplus Weapons-Usable Plutonium Disposition, Rev. 1, October 31, 1996, Table ES-2, p. ES-11.  DOE estimates that an immobilization-only alternative would cost from $1.7 to $1.9 billion, whereas the hybrid alternatives would cost from $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion (with fuel offset) or from $2.7 billion to $2.9 billion (without fuel offset).  U.S. DOE, Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, Cost Analysis and Support of Site Selection for Surplus Weapons Usable Plutonium Disposition, DOE/MD20009, July 22, 1998, Table 3-2, p. 3-17; Table 3-3, p. 3-18.

4. Steven Dolley, Nuclear Control Institute Comments on the Draft PEIS for Plutonium Disposition, June 7, 1996.

5. "Appendix N: Plutonium Polishing," draft EIS, pp. N-8 - N-9.

6. D. L. Williams Jr., "Licensing Issues Associated with the Use of Mixed-Oxide Fuel in U.S. Commercial Nuclear Reactors," Oak Ride National Laboratory Report, ORNL/TM-13421, April 1997, p. 9.

7. Geoffrey Lean, "Report that Justified Thorp Nuclear Plant Never Existed," Independent on Sunday, September 13, 1998.

8. F. Schmitz, Institute de Protection et de Surete Nucleaire (IPSN), "The Status of the Cabri REP-Na Test Programme: Present Understanding and Still Pending Questions," presentation to the NRC/Industry Meeting on High-Burnup Fuel Issues, Rockville, Maryland, November 18-20, 1997.

9. Jean-Luc Provost, Electricite de France, "Plutonium Recycling and Use of MOX Fuel in PWR: EDF Operating Experience," Industry Presentation to NRC on the Use of MOX Fuel, Rockville, Maryland, February 21, 1997.

[What's New] What's New         [Plutonium Disposition]Pu Disposition         [Home Page]Home Page