Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Nuclear Arms Disassembly Plan Sparks Dissent
The U.S. Energy Department this week received skeptical responses to an effort to convert nuclear-weapon plutonium into atomic power fuel at a New Mexico site possibly vulnerable to seismic tremors, the Associated Press reported.
The initiative is the department's favored potential means of eliminating plutonium following last year's cancellation of a Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility slated for construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The project would involve transferring 7.1 metric tons of fissile warhead cores from the Pantex Plant in Texas for conversion at the South Carolina complex and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Independent advocates, though, on Tuesday took issue with the move to place additional plutonium in the Los Alamos laboratory’s four-decade-old PF-4 building. The site might not be capable of surviving high-level seismic activity, and government personnel provided an overly optimistic projection of the quantity of radioactive material that the Los Alamos laboratory would emit in the event of a major earth tremor and blaze, according to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.
It is unclear why the department favors relying on the Los Alamos building "when these very basic problems have not been resolved," said Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group.
"We are talking about a very large new mission, a type of mission for which this building was not designed," Mello said at a formal discussion of the initiative. Officials would be better off seeking a low-hazard means of interring the material, he said.
Los Alamos laboratory plutonium specialist David Clark, though, said the PF-4 structure would be optimal for the conversion effort.
"They are disassembling [plutonium] pits today," the expert said. "They are doing it right now. It is already part of the mission. ... They have the knowledge."
Clark said he was not worried about possible risks to the site after working there for a decade. The structure would be his ideal place to shelter during a seismic event, he added, echoing comments from separate high-ranking laboratory personnel.
The scientist said he had permission to disclose neither the amount of plutonium now at the site nor the quantity of warhead cores the initiative would entail. Shifting the additional material into the structure would leave site activities largely unaffected, he contended.
"This is not going to make a dent," Clark stated.
Producing mixed-oxide fuel from the plutonium would be the most well-advised step, considering the objective of making sure the material becomes unusable as nuclear-bomb fuel, according to the specialist.
"MOX is a proven fuel that is used around the world, in a variety of reactors," Clark said. "Storing plutonium in glass or ceramic in canisters or underground will not reduce the global inventories. As a chemist, such waste forms may slow me down, but I can still recover the plutonium. The only one of these options that will destroy plutonium ... or make it unsuitable for weapons ... is to burn it in a nuclear reactor."
Nov. 9, 2012
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