Originally created 03/12/98

U.S. delays disposal, study says



WASHINGTON -- Delays in U.S. efforts to get rid of weapons-grade plutonium are threatening world peace by encouraging the Russians to stall on the issue, according to a report released Wednesday by Rep. Lindsey Graham.

But the Department of Energy official in charge of the surplus plutonium program said the department is moving as quickly as it can without breaking the law or jeopardizing safety.

The study, produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Russia will not reduce its supply of weapons-grade plutonium without similar action by the United States. It warns that every day of delay increases the chances that Russian nuclear material could fall into the hands of rogue nations or terrorists.

"The countries we fear most probably don't have the capability of developing nuclear material," said Mr. Graham, R-S.C. "But if they get some Russian general or someone else who hasn't been paid for a year, they can probably get the stuff in a year."

The DOE's strategy for disposal of surplus plutonium involves two methods: mixing it with uranium to form mixed-oxide -- or MOX fuel -- for use in commercial reactors, and immobilizing it into a strong glass-like solid. About 33 tons of weapons-grade plutonium are targeted for conversion into MOX fuel, while about 17 tons would be immobilized.

The department has designated Savannah River Site for the immobilization project, a process already under way at the South Carolina complex, and SRS is one of four DOE sites in the running for the proposed MOX fuel fabrication plant.

The report supports the "dual-track" approach but criticizes the DOE for not moving quickly enough either to put in place the U.S. surplus plutonium disposition program, or to convince the Russians to enter into formal agreements on the issue.

"It is disturbing that after several years of effort, the United States and Russia are still primarily in a study-and-evaluation stage," the report said.

"There are grounds for serious concern about whether the United States is devoting attention and resources sufficient to assure the success of the disposition effort."

But the U.S. program is making steady progress, within the legal restrictions imposed on the timetable, said Howard Carter, director of the DOE's Office of Fissile Materials Disposition.

"There's nothing I can put my finger on to say, `This has delayed us six months,' or `This has delayed us nine months,' " he said.

Mr. Carter said the legal hoops DOE must jump through include negotiating contracts with the utilities that will accept MOX fuel for their reactors and the environmental-review process.

He said the department expects to issue a draft environmental impact statement this spring, naming a preferred site for the MOX fuel fabrication plant. The final decision on MOX fuel is due by the end of the year.

In the meantime, Mr. Carter said the DOE has been testing the MOX fuel process at sites in Tennessee and Idaho, and expects to begin operating a prototype pit disassembly and conversion facility this spring. That plant will remove plutonium from excess nuclear weapons components prior to disposal by either MOX fuel or immobilization.