NNSA to Resume Plutonium Separation at the Savannah River Site’s H Canyon for MOX Fuel
Aiken, S.C. – Just as the Department of Energy touts the closing and capping of two nuclear waste storage tanks this summer in its brimming H Tank Farm – the result of hundreds of millions of dollars in Recovery Act funds – the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) released a statement on July 11, 2012, that proposes to use the crumbling and problem-plagued 430,000-square-foot H Canyon to process tons of weapons grade plutonium, sending additional high level nuclear waste to the H Tank Farm that was supposed to be cleaned up and shuttered. This process will add to the tens of millions of gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste that have made the Savannah River Site, an EPA Superfund site, the most concentrated and dangerous radioactive site in the United States.
NNSA will take some of the tons of weapons grade plutonium stored in the old K Reactor at SRS and, according to SRS spokesman James Giusti, “it will prepare Pu oxide for use in MOX to its requirements.” The DOE is constructing a problem-plagued mixed oxide fuel plant, the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, with the French-government-owned contractor Areva, to turn surplus weapons grade plutonium into a kind of high octane civilian nuclear reactor fuel. The MOX plant is over budget and behind schedule. No major utility has agreed to use MOX fuel rods in their civilian reactors.
Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth, a veteran observer of SRS, said that the reason NNSA is trying to keep the aging H Canyon going is money. “Yes, it’s all about keeping their cash cow going, even if MOX fails. They have finished processing unirradiated HEU (highly enriched uranium) and there is no approval to reprocess research reactor spent fuel so they need something to do in H Canyon to keep pulling in the $250 million a year.”
SRS spokesman Guisti confirms via email that “NNSA is funding the MOX work about the H Canyon baseline.”
The independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) recently cited serious safety concerns at aging SRS facilities, including H Canyon, that involve risks of plutonium exposure and fire. When asked what impact the DNFSB concerns about H Canyon would have on NNSA’s plans to resume plutonium separation, Giusti said, “The DNFSB concerns do not impact the facility operations.”
The ongoing problems with disposing of highly radioactive waste have been 60 years in the making. Starting in the 1950s, five reactors designed to produce nuclear weapons grade materials churned out plutonium at a blistering pace. The fuel was then sent to two huge plants at SRS called canyons to chemically separate the plutonium from other elements and turn it into pits for nuclear bombs. Everything the radioactive chemicals and waste touched became contaminated with radioactivity. The giant F and H Canyons have accumulated a generation’s worth of plutonium particles in every nook and cranny of these huge and decaying buildings. The F Canyon is in the worst condition and is a few hundred yards from the new MOX plant under construction.
There is also the plumbing – hundreds of miles of pipes connecting these canyons to two tank farms where scores of carbon steel tanks – each the size of a National Basketball Association Court – hold the deadly toxic brew from the nuclear separation process. The tanks began to corrode and rust not long after their installation in the damp South Carolina climate. At least a dozen of them began leaking into the sandy soil. That deterioration process is hurried by radiation which damages and breaks down metals and cement. The lesson of SRS and other DOE sites is that the radiation over time will defeat anything mankind has contrived to contain it.
More than a billion dollars of President Obama’s Recovery Act monies have been spent to clean up SRS, yet it is more dangerous today than it was before the vast amounts were spent. The “clean-up” undertaken by contractors with DOE oversight is at best a temporary solution to a problem Americans will face for thousands of years. Instead of actually removing and remediating radioactive elements at the site, vast amounts of grout or cement are used to bury old reactors and fill the waste tanks. Experts believe that at best the cement will last about 30 to 50 years, while the radiological power of the waste would take hundreds and even thousands of years to decay.
Because radiation cannot be destroyed – simply isolated and contained – these monies are being spent for a comparatively very short term for which future generations will have to contend, much like the SRS workers are dealing with the Cold War legacy waste.
More troubling, according to SRS veteran engineer William Lawless, is that like the Japanese reactors that failed and exploded after the earthquake in 2011, the tanks at SRS build up explosive hydrogen that present a constant danger of high level nuclear waste being released in a massive explosion at one or more of the tanks.
The Atlanta Office of the Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to oversee the clean-up at SRS as a designated Superfund site. But NNSA operates under the Atomic Energy Act that exempts it from EPA authority to stop it from increasing radioactive pollution at the site.
EPA official Rob Pope and his colleagues are unable to stop NNSA from adding high-level radioactive waste to the leaking tanks at SRS that were supposed to be emptied, grouted and shuttered. “We have no operational authority because of the way the Atomic Energy Act is written. The ongoing operations are exempt from EPA oversight,” Pope said.
NNSA is not like a conventional chemical or mining company that the EPA could stop from continuing to pollute at a declared Superfund site. At SRS and the other major federal nuclear sites, the Atomic Energy Act allows NNSA to operate in any manner it deems appropriate. Its powers exceed the EPA’s in all nuclear matters – including private nuclear waste dump sites. The only way EPA can assist in the clean-up is if there is an accident or radiation leak and even then the EPA must defer to DOE.
More startling is that even if EPA officials detect or suspect potential problems at SRS, they have no power to prevent them. For example, if a safety issue threatened the release of a deadly and powerful carcinogen like plutonium oxide from the H Canyon or MOX plant, EPA does not have the power to take preventative action.
While the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has serious concerns about the eighteen pollution plumes at SRS and other waste issues, the state agency also has limited ability to stop ongoing activities that result in current pollution on the federally controlled site.
DHEC Federal Facilities Liaison Shelly Wilson said in an email, “Treatment of high level waste and tank closure remain high focus areas of DHEC for Savannah River Site due to the risk posed by toxic and radioactive liquid in aging tanks. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has discussed with Department of Energy the possible addition of relatively small volumes to the high level waste tanks. DHEC respects that this is a DOE decision, ultimately subject to regulatory milestones for overall waste treatment and tank closure.”
The most toxic liquid waste and sludge from the H Canyon is sent in tiny batches from the Tank Farms to a nearby Defense Waste Processing Facility to vitrify the plutonium-riddled waste in glass. Even these glass and stainless steel canisters will break down before the plutonium decays. These canisters were supposed to be shipped to a national repository for long term storage. Because the Obama administration shuttered Yucca Mountain, the canisters are being storied in shallow cement silos next to the DWPF.
SRS sits on an active earthquake fault. “Earthquakes are not an uncommon occurrence in South Carolina,” the state’s Department of Natural Resources website says. SRS also sits on one of the South’s most important aquifers. According to leading geologists, its hot, humid, swampy location on the Savannah River make it uniquely unsuitable for long term storage of radioactive waste. South Carolina is subject to tornados, hurricanes and other natural threats that seriously complicate safety storing nuclear waste in these temporary storage facilities.
The DWPF is years behind schedule in reducing and isolating tank waste. Now the NNSA is proposing to increase the amount of waste that will need to be processed through the tanks to the DWPF to the storage canisters.
To complicate matters, NNSA is creating more radioactive waste at the site on a daily basis as it processes radioactive weapons materials coming into SRS from around the world as part of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation programs. Some of that material has been run through H Canyon and has produced additional tank waste as the weapons grade material is blended down into reactor fuel.
According to Tom Clements and other SRS observers, as that nonproliferation program is winding down, NNSA is “desperate to keep H Canyon operating.” The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility requires plutonium from weapons be converted into a fine powder to be blended into uranium oxide and turned into fuel rods for civilian nuclear reactors. That highly dangerous process was supposed to be done in a stand-alone facility that NNSA hoped to build adjoining the old K Reactor, where huge amounts of weapons grade plutonium are currently stored. The decision to use H Canyon to process Pu oxide for the new MOX plant which SRS spokesman Giusti says will begin operations in 2018 came after proposals to build the new plutonium processing facility outside the K Materials Storage Facility were delayed.
For the EPA, this means a new high-level waste stream will go into the H Tank Farm delaying closing of the tanks and the entire SRS clean-up. In addition, the MOX plant itself will produce very high level nuclear waste if and when it actually begins to operate.
Former DOE official Bob Alvarez says, “Based on DOE’s big project failure rate” there is a good chance the MOX fuel plant will never actually open despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on it. Alvarez also said that there is a good probability that the roughly forty tons of weapons grade plutonium stored at SRS “may have to be blended with glass and buried.”
Clements and others point out that SRS is the only Superfund site where the polluters are allowed to keep polluting. The additional plutonium reprocessing will add thousands of gallons of additional high level waste to the tens of millions already stored in the remaining 49 huge tanks filled with the most toxic radiological substances known to mankind.
According to Clements, South Carolina environmental officials have looked the other way and followed the lead of local, state and federal politicians in treating SRS as a source of high paying jobs that should not be challenged. Politicians from all political persuasions, from Teaparty conservatives like U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Nikki Haley to liberal U.S. House of Representatives leader James Clyburn are huge supporters of federal monies going to SRS and protect it from serious oversight. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) has repeatedly criticized the squandering of more than a billion dollars in Recovery Act funds on failed clean-up attempts at SRS.
South Carolina politicians who complain about wasteful federal spending say nothing about the billions of taxpayer dollars wasted on trying to clean up SRS, even though there is now more radioactive waste at the site than at the height of the Cold War. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham even supported efforts to reclassify nuclear waste that would make it easier for SRS to accumulate even more high-level waste at the site. These politicians also enjoy political contributions and other favors from SRS contractors.
Today, SRS is completely controlled by NNSA, a very powerful political force and independent agency inside DOE. In effect, SRS has oversight of itself. NNSA is responsible for all nuclear weapons activities. Created under the George W. Bush administration, NNSA controls about 85 percent of the entire DOE budget and can, in the name of national security, withstand any serious oversight. President Obama left the Bush NNSA management team in place and has allowed them to operate with no serious scrutiny. In internal battles inside DOE, the environmental side has repeatedly lost out to NNSA despite management blunders at SRS and Hanford that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. (A new version of the DWPF being built at Hanford has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and is nowhere close to being operational.)
The Obama administration has allowed NNSA such freedom because during the Clinton administration initiatives to convert nuclear warheads into reactor fuel became popular in the nonproliferation community (swords into ploughshares). NNSA’s predecessor was instrumental in convincing U.S. diplomats and major peace and security foundations that turning surplus nuclear warheads into MOX fuel for civilian reactors was the best deposal method for the United States for nonproliferation treaties with the Russians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to support this policy that was first unveiled during her husband’s administration.
What NNSA did not reveal to the policy community was that the technical capability of converting the warheads into fuel rods did not exist and came with its own set of problems, including converting whatever civilian reactors that used this fuel into militarized sites because the MOX fuel rods are much more dangerous than conventional fuel rods to control and store.
France’s Areva, the SRS MOX contractor, loaded MOX fuel into Reactor Number 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant the fall before the March 2011explosion. This reprocessed fuel complicates the already complex natural disaster responses. Areva’s reactor and fuel sales have dropped dramatically since the Japanese reactor meltdowns.
At a press briefing at the National Press Club this spring, the heads of two leading peace and security foundations, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and former State Department official Robert Gallucci of the MacArthur Foundation, came out against plutonium-based fuel for civilian reactors. However, the United States government has no policy alternative in development should the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, the first of its kind, not meet safety and treaty requirements.