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Plutonium-Facility Construction to Proceed This Year, Despite Mothball Plans

The Energy Department on Tuesday said construction of a mixed-oxide plant will continue for now, though the intention is to eventually ax the project.

"We will continue with construction activities through [fiscal] 2014, retaining the key nuclear engineers and other highly skilled workers that will be needed regardless of the path forward," National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Josh McConaha said in a statement to the Associated Press.

The Energy Department in its fiscal 2015 budget proposal said it planned to shut down work on the partially constructed MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina due to the project's high cost. That announcement was met by an outcry from the state of South Carolina, which is suing to keep the project going.

The department on Tuesday said it would not continue construction of the fuel fabrication facility past Sept. 30 -- the end of the current fiscal year -- unless it receives a pledge from Congress that further funding for building work would be approved to the tune of $500 million to $600 million annually until 2027, the New York Times reported.

The facility was intended to dispose of a large amount of surplus weapons-grade plutonium that the United States agreed to eliminate under a binding nonproliferation accord with Russia.

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Tuesday released a study into alternatives for disposing of the excess plutonium. The report focused on four alternative options: irradiating the plutonium in a fast reactor that would need to be built; immobilization; down-blending and storage at an existing underground nuclear-waste dump in New Mexico; and deep borehole disposal. The latter three options would all require a supplemental agreement to be worked out with Russia.

Down-blending the plutonium with inert materials and storing it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant offered the smallest projected price tag at $8.8 billion.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a Tuesday analysis said the down-blending option was the best alternative, due to its comparatively low cost and technical risk.

The WIPP facility, however, is not presently accepting new shipments of radioactive waste, due to an accident earlier this year that caused the release of some radioactive elements.

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