Burning Bomb Material in TVA’s Nukes

The Department of Energy hopes to fulfill a treaty requirement with Russia by disposing of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in TVA's reactors. Some don't think this is a good idea.

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Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability is a bitter enemy of the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s possible alternative choice for the disposition of surplus plutonium from atomic warheads. 

The plutonium is now in “pit storage” at Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and in “non-pit storage” at Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. 

From Pantax, there would be “disassembly” and conversion at SRS and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

From SRS, there would be “non-pit plutonium processing.”  Both take what a critic at a hearing this week in Chatanooga called “the most biologically hazardous substance” to a mixed oxide fuel fabrication plant at SRS, where it would be made into a fuel for existing nuclear power plants, or to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. 

Tom Clements is dogging DOE’s every step as the agency plans how to dispose of tons of these dangerous leftovers from the nuclear age In the latest scoping progress across the Sun Belt, there have been hearings in Tennessee. The DOE roadshow is then moving on to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to the Savannah River Site (SRS) in Georgia., to TVA’s headquarters in Tennessee. 

The latest public hearing was this Tuesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. It was attended by (I counted) 146 people. Tom Clements was one of them and he spoke out against reconstituting the plutonium for use in commercial reactors. (See another story on this meeting here.)

“Mixed oxide (from plutonium) has never been used commercially,” Clements said, waving documents as his face reddened. “It’s never even been tested in a boiling-water reactor like TVA’s Browns Ferry (on the Tennessee River near Athens, Alabama).  I call on the nuclear industry to step up and admit this….”

“I fear the Department of Energy is trying to make a patsy of the TVA to do this project,” Clements charged

Dr. Steven E. Skutnik, assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee and co-writer of the blog The Neutron Economy, strongly disagreed.

“The curse of nuclear destruction hangs over our heads,” Dr. Skutnik said. “I am aware there are people in this room tonight on the other side of the question.  But both sides believe in peaceful use of these materials… The introduction of weapons-grade plutonium as mixed oxide fuel renders it impracticable for use in weapons.”

A Moment of Silence

There’s many a moment of silence in public life.  However, one on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11 in Chattanooga was quite moving. This was called for by a federal agency charged with disposing of what Sachiko McAlhany of DOE said is “a global stockpile of nuclear weapons left over from the end of the Cold War and that could fall into terrorists’ hands.”

According to Mick Mastilovic of TVA, implementation of the plan to transport the plutonium across the country and then back to two of the agency’s nuclear plants would be in 2018 at the earliest. The plan would have to be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

Disposing of the nuclear waste stockpiled outside Amarillo and in South Carolina would help the U.S. meet new treaty commitments with Russia.  A 2000 treaty requires the U.S. to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium, and it could do this by using the fuel at TVA’s nuclear power plants. This would also mean the plutonium would have to traverse the country, from Washington state to Texas to Georgia and South Carolina. (See Daily Yonder story here.)

Sachiko McAlhany is a calm, composed U.S. energy veteran who edited a draft environmental impact study (EIS) and the current 938-page draft supplemental EIS. She is coolly defending the agency’s plans across the landscape of post-Cold-War rural America, where the leftover plutonium is now stored

“Are you enjoying being back in Chattanooga,” I asked Ms. McAlhany. “I always enjoy coming here,” she replied.

When and if this round of meetings is successfully finished, McAlhany and her staff outside Washington, D.C., would begin a final environmental assessment.

 

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