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Government plans to bury, burn weapons-grade plutonium

 Waste Disposal December 9, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Stuck with 50 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, the government hopes to encase some of it in glass and bury it, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said on Monday.

Tons more may be "burned" -- in other words, decomposed in reactors -- at civilian nuclear power plants as part of the $2 billion project, officials say.

"The arms race is over and now it's time to destroy excess plutonium forever," O'Leary said at a Washington news conference.

The Energy Department plans a decades-long, two-pronged approach for dealing with the plutonium left over from 50 years of nuclear weapons production during the Cold War, department sources said on Sunday.

The decision follows several years of debate within DOE over how to get rid of the plutonium that is stockpiled from dismantled warheads and as nuclear waste at federal weapons production facilities.

It has been one of the most challenging and complicated issues facing the government as the United States and Russia shrink their nuclear arsenals.

The material stays highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years and only a small amount is needed to make a nuclear weapon.

Three options

The department said last March that it was considering three options:

  • Using commercial atomic power plants to burn the plutonium after it is mixed with uranium into a mixed oxide, or MOX.

  • Encasing it under high temperature in glass -- a process called vitrification -- so it can be more easily handled and stored, and eventually buried.

  • Putting the plutonium into deep bore holes.

Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the department ruled out the bore hole approach and will concentrate over the next two years in resolving technical issues in vitrification and in commercial burning of the plutonium.

It is not known how much of the plutonium would be disposed through burning and how much would be encased in glass and buried. That likely will not be worked out for several years. The total disposal process could take decades.

One DOE official familiar with the plan said about one- third of the plutonium is not suitable for commercial burning as a fuel because of impurities. Sixteen electric utilities with more than three dozen reactors have expressed interest in taking part in the disposal effort, the official said.

No American commercial reactor currently uses MOX. The fuel was abandoned in the 1970s in the United States as part of a policy of not mixing military and civilian nuclear programs, although MOX is used in some European reactors.

Nuclear critics

Critics of using such fuel argue that weapons-grade plutonium should not be free in civilian commerce and that to burn plutonium -- even as a mixed oxide -- would blur the separation of military and civilian nuclear programs.

"The United States would be signaling that plutonium has some value" as a commercial reactor fuel, argued Daniel Horner of the Nuclear Control Institute, a private watchdog group.

He and other critics say use of plutonium by civilian utilities also runs counter to the Clinton administration's anti-proliferation policy and sends the wrong signal to other countries where security and safeguards may be less stringent than in the United States.

But Energy Department officials say adequate safeguards can be maintained and still allow plutonium to be used in civilian reactors.

Earlier this month, a group of leading nuclear technology specialists sent a letter to President Clinton endorsing the two-track approach, including vitrification and mixed-oxide burning, a senior DOE official.

Three years ago, the National Academy of Sciences also concluded that the conversion of plutonium into a mixed-oxide fuel, along with vitrification, should be pursued.

Both vitrification and commercial burning are expensive.

A $1 billion plant earlier this year began encasing highly radioactive waste in glass at the Savannah River weapons facility in South Carolina. That facility likely would be used to dispose of some of the plutonium.

A new mixed-oxide fabrication plant would have to be built if large amounts of plutonium are converted into commercial reactor fuel. Such a plant could cost $1 billion or more, according to nuclear industry sources.

Copyright 1996   The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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