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NRC Panel Reviews Fears Plutonium Vulnerable To Theft

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A sign for the unfinished plant intended convert nuclear weapon-usable plutonium into reactor fuel at the U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. An NRC licensing board is reviewing activists' concerns the facility may be vulnerable to theft (Shaw Areva MOX Services photo). A sign for the unfinished plant intended convert nuclear weapon-usable plutonium into reactor fuel at the U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. An NRC licensing board is reviewing activists' concerns the facility may be vulnerable to theft (Shaw Areva MOX Services photo).

WASHINGTON – A Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing board is reviewing activists’ claims that plans to convert nuclear weapon-usable plutonium into reactor fuel in South Carolina do not include adequate security measures.

Watchdog groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nuclear Watch South and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, argue that “the risk of plutonium theft would be increased to an unacceptable level” if a federal contractor does not make “fundamental changes” to its plans to secure and account for material at the Savannah River Site’s unfinished mixed-oxide conversion facility.

Shaw Areva MOX Services, which is building the plant, "proposes to rely on a computerized inventory system to meet certain NRC … regulations in lieu of conventional approaches that entail physical verification of plutonium items,” the groups said in a statement Tuesday.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with Union of Concerned Scientists, argued the company “is proposing a cut-rate approach for plutonium accounting that will make it much harder to detect a diversion or theft of plutonium before it is too late.” The “computer-heavy approach could also increase the vulnerability of their accounting system to cyber attack,” Lyman said.

A spokesman for Shaw Areva MOX Services declined to comment, but the company disputed the activists’ claims in a May 3 legal brief filed with the NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. At hearings on their concerns last year, activists failed to submit any “evidentiary materials rebutting the testimony of MOX Service’s expert witnesses,” the company claims.

The watchdog groups “frequently refer to the [computer] systems as ‘substitute[s]’ or a second best choice for what they refer to as a ‘physical retrieval and inspection’” but “have not articulated precisely what they mean by ‘physical retrieval and inspection,’” the company said. The activists’ “suggestion that MOX Services’ proposed approach is second best is plainly incorrect, given the extensive testimony on the automation, reliability, and reduction of opportunities for human effort provide by the” system, according to Shaw Areva.

The contractor said its proposed system meets NRC standards requiring “a licensee to verify, on a statistical sampling basis, the presence and integrity of [sensitive nuclear material], with a 99 percent power of detecting losses of five formula kilograms or more, plant wide, within 30 days…”

The licensing board was to hear additional arguments from both sides during closed hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday in Rockville, Md. The hearings, along with many of the legal documents associated with the case, are off-limits to the public because they involve what the government considers to be “sensitive unclassified nuclear security information.”

If the licensing board rules in favor of activists and agrees that Shaw Areva’s accountability plan does not comply with NRC rules, it could prove an obstacle to obtaining a license for the facility. Many ASLB decisions are appealed to the commission and to federal appeals courts, however.

The legal challenge comes as the Obama administration is proposing funding cuts and a slowed construction schedule for the project. The White House has said the facility might ultimately prove “unaffordable.”

Activists have argued the United States should seek other means to meet the terms of a plutonium disposition agreement with Russia, such as converting the substance into glass-like logs through a process called vitrification. No nuclear power plant operators have publicly agreed to use MOX fuel, though Shaw Areva officials say some have expressed interest privately.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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