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Congressional Panel Blocks Industry Role in Plutonium-Disposal Decision

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) speaks during a Washington news conference in 2011. Garamendi tried to add provisions to a defense bill this week that would require the Energy Department to involve industry in deciding how to dispose of excess plutonium. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) speaks during a Washington news conference in 2011. Garamendi tried to add provisions to a defense bill this week that would require the Energy Department to involve industry in deciding how to dispose of excess plutonium. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Republican-led House Rules Committee has blocked an effort by some House Democrats to have the Energy Department involve the private sector in its decision on how to dispose bomb-grade plutonium leftover from the Cold War.

The Energy Department recently decided to put construction of a controversial facility that would convert the plutonium into nuclear fuel on hold while it considers whether to pursue other -- possibly cheaper -- ways of disposing the material.

The department earlier this month released a preliminary study of options, and told lawmakers it would take an additional 18 months to make a decision.

The United States is required to dispose of the excess plutonium as part of an agreement with Russia, but lawmakers have raised concerns about the cost of using the fuel-conversion plan to do so. Meanwhile, activists have raised concerns the strategy could actually increase proliferation risks.

Representative John Garamendi (D-Calif.), with support from seven other House Democrats, offered the measure as an amendment to the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill. It would have required the department to solicit proposals from contractors on how they might dispose of the plutonium, should the government decide to scrap the mixed-oxide fuel-conversion plan.

Speaking to Global Security Newswire on Tuesday, Garamendi said the goal of the amendment was to accelerate the department's decision-making process. The measure also was "to involve those companies and entities that actually know how to do this stuff and have done and could do it," he said.

"It's one thing to have the [department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration] spend a lot of time trying to sort out what they want to do, and they don't have a good track record," Garamendi said. "But there are companies and entities that could do this, and I want them to make a formal presentation on how they would do it and what it would cost."

Among the questions Garamendi would want contractors to answer is whether they would use the partially built MOX facility in South Carolina to dispose of the plutonium in another way, "and if not, where would you do it and how would you do it and so forth. Otherwise, the NNSA is going to spend 18 months basically going around in circles, and at the end of the time they will be no further ahead than they are now."

Garamendi said he thought a decision could be made "much faster" than in the 18 months the department predicted. He said he expected the department could give contractors 60 days to submit initial proposals, followed by an additional six months to obtained more detailed plans from those it deems qualified.

Other lawmakers also are looking to accelerate various aspects of the department's review of the plutonium-disposition project. Saying they doubted Energy's estimates for how much it would cost to carry on with the MOX option, Senate appropriators earlier this month asked department officials to "re-look at the MOX numbers [and suggest] potential changes that can be made to … keep the price down."

At press time, it was unclear whether Energy Department officials had complied with that request.

A spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, did not respond to a request for comment. An Energy Department spokeswoman also could not be reached by press time.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is objecting to language already in the House defense authorization bill that would require the department to continue construction on the MOX facility, according to a statement of administration policy the White House issued this week.

"The administration's plan to move the facility into cold standby in [fiscal 2015] while it continues to explore more cost-effective alternatives will save taxpayers billions of dollars, while still maintaining the U.S. government's commitment to disposing of unneeded plutonium," the statement said.

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