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NNSA announces environmental review for plutonium disposal plans involving Savannah River

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In this file photo, a truck carries nuclear-waste shipping containers to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the southeastern corner of New Mexico.

The Department of Energy’s weapons-and-nonproliferation arm will soon review the possible environmental consequences of so-called dilute-and-dispose, the alternative to the mothballed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

In a notice published Wednesday morning, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced its intent to produce an environmental impact statement for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition program, of which the Savannah River Site is a pivotal player.

Dilute-and-dispose, sometimes referred to as downblending, is a means to dispose of plutonium. The meticulous – and slow going – process involves converting the toxic material into an oxide, adulterating it, and shipping the mixture to southeastern New Mexico for entombment at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a repository similar to a salt mine.

The Savannah River Site plays a central role in the cross-country equation, alongside Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Pantex Plant in northern Texas. Approximately 11½ metric tons of surplus plutonium were stored at the Savannah River Site as of February.

The NNSA, which already operates at the site, is accepting comments on the dilute-and-dispose plan through the start of February 2021. A public meeting – held virtually, by phone and internet – on the strategy is scheduled for early next year.

"During the meeting, NNSA will welcome public input on the scope of the EIS and any reasonable alternatives," the semiautonomous agency said in a Wednesday email. "The public will also have the opportunity to submit written comments."

A National Academies study published months ago argued the government’s plan to dispose of the processed defense plutonium in New Mexico was viable, but only if a raft of vulnerabilities was addressed.

“The dilute-and-dispose plan is not technically complex,” Robert Dynes, the chairman of the Committee on Disposal of Surplus Plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, wrote in a preface to the lengthy study. “The true challenges lay in the many mostly nontechnical threads that are connected to the technical plan.”

An interim report on dilute-and-dispose was issued in late 2018. The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, meant to turn 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium into nuclear fuel, was nixed that year following a legal battle with South Carolina.

Palmetto State leaders, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham, have repeatedly rejected the dilute-and-dispose approach. The two Republicans favored MOX; Graham in 2018 said the cancellation of the multibillion-dollar endeavor was a “colossal mistake.”

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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