DOE delays assessment of plutonium disposal options

The Department of Energy's assessment of plutonium disposal options will be delayed until at least mid-2014. The assessment was announced as part of the FY14 budget and is meant to review practical alternatives to the nation's MOX program.

The National Nuclear Security Administration – or NNSA – announced that a contract change notice on the final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for plutonium disposal options has been delayed until April 30, 2014. DOE currently lists the release of the document as being “under departmental review.”

A press release by Friends of the Earth states that NNSA posted changes to the contract on Oct. 4. Changes include an extended deadline and increased fees to the contractor.

“DOE's admission that decisions about plutonium disposition have been posted until next year indicates big trouble for the mismanaged MOX program,” said Katherine Fuchs, nuclear subsidies campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The stunning delays indicate costs, technical problems and schedules delays with MOX are catching up with the mismanaged program.”

A leading alternative to the MOX program is disposing of the surplus plutonium as waste. According to documents obtained by Friends of the Earth in a Freedom of Information Act request, disposing of the plutonium in DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico appears to be much cheaper than MOX.

This could be done by packaging the plutonium with high-level radioactive waste to create a radiation barrier and placing the waste in a secure geologic repository.

While no contractors have been named, the delays could have implications for the MOX facility under construction at the Savannah River Site. Over time, the estimate for construction of the MOX facility has soared from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $4.8 billion in 2008 to $7.7 billion in 2013. More delays to the project are expected as a result of the 500 layoffs announced in August. The layoffs were made in a response to the proposed federal budget for the fiscal year.

NNSA could not be reached for comment.

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard news team and joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and graduated from Georgia Southern University with a journalism degree in May 2012.

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