The federal government's plan to permanently dispose of metric tons of adulterated defense plutonium in New Mexico is viable, but only if a suite of "challenges" and "vulnerabilities" are resolved, according to a newly published study from the National Academies.
The individual steps needed to execute the dilute-and-dispose mission, the National Nuclear Security Administration's alternative to the canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, are nearly all there, the study reasons. But those individual cogs have not been demonstrated to work as a machine, in-sync, start to end, the 200-plus-page report continues. And some processes have only seen small-scale success – not at the level needed to properly eliminate the volume of plutonium in question.
That, the National Academies analysis suggests, is problematic.
Other issues with dilute-and-dispose – the process of mixing plutonium with inert, inhibiting materials and trucking the mixture to southeastern New Mexico for entombment in salt at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – tie back to its predicted lifespan, at least three decades; the sustainability of a cohesive workforce as well as reliable infrastructure; resource competition with plutonium pit production, which could rely heavily on the Savannah River Site; and WIPP being the single point of failure.
"Future accidents resulting in lengthy shutdowns, such as those that occurred in 2014, pose a risk to access for the dilute and dispose programs but so do agreements and priorities of other programs … or other state legal requirements," the study reads. A truck fire and a radiological release were to blame for the temporary shuttering of the deep geologic repository near Carlsbad years ago.
Reached for comment Friday, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson said the comprehensive, years-in-the-making study validates the feasibility of dilute-and-dispose – a win for the relatively immature undertaking. The spokesperson for the weapons-and-nonproliferation agency said the myriad recommendations made will be "thoroughly evaluated" and "key actions" will be implemented "as we further develop plans for the dilute-and-dispose process."
Dilute-and-dispose sprung years ago as the alternative to the Savannah River Site's MOX project, which was notably over-budget, the subject of much congressional scrutiny and on the receiving end of nuclear watcher and activist derision.
Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements, for example, has repeatedly called for investigations into alleged fraud, waste and abuse – a phrase the Energy Department's inspector general employs – at the MOX project. Nuclear Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan on Thursday said the failed endeavor is prime evidence of the troubles plaguing the National Nuclear Security Administration's weapons complex.
The cross-country dilute-and-dispose approach has been estimated to cost about $18.2 billion – roughly half of what the MOX fuel option would have cost, a point hammered home by former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry when he moved to kill the unfinished facility.
The National Nuclear Security Administration successfully axed the project, employing more than 1,000 people at the time, in October 2018. Both Perry – before he stepped away at the end of 2019, amid an investigation into President Donald Trump – and NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty have championed dilute-and-dispose.
It's simply better, they have said.
Gordon-Hagerty, also the under secretary for nuclear security, was steadfast in her support of dilute-and-dispose during a 2019 interview with the Aiken Standard. Our plan, she reinforced, "is to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium, and that is our stance, and that will continue to be our stance."
On the flip side, South Carolina leaders, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Henry McMaster, two Republicans, have lambasted the dilute-and-dispose method; elected officials in the Palmetto State favored and fervently defended MOX even as their colleagues across the country doubted the crumbling endeavor and courts dismissed the state's legal interventions. Graham in late 2018 described the cancellation of MOX as a "colossal mistake." Dilute-and-dispose, he has said, is half-baked. And in a May 2, 2018, letter to Perry, then the energy secretary, McMaster painted dilute-and-dispose as "only an idea."
"DOE's dilution proposal is, at best," McMaster wrote, "conceptual."
In a preface to the National Academies study, Robert Dynes, the chairman of the Committee on Disposal of Surplus Plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, mentioned "it is worth noting the political context at the start of and throughout this study."
"The dilute and dispose plan is not technically complex," the chairman wrote. "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. It featured initial findings and recommendations. Thursday's publication often references and makes updates to it.
"It is important to stress that the program was and is evolving in real time," Dynes explained. "Other DOE programs that emerged during this study, including the new focus on pit production, which affects three of the four sites within the dilute and dispose plan, also needed to be considered."
The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that work to help solve problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.