Originally created 03/20/01

Energy agency halts site project



The U.S. Department of Energy has suspended work on one of three plutonium-treatment plants planned for Savannah River Site.

Work on design of the $1.2 billion "plutonium immobilization" plant has been halted, and money for its construction was removed from the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2002, federal officials confirmed Monday.

"The administration is looking at the budget and programs for the next fiscal year and wants to ensure the most effective use of monies available," Darwin Morgan, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, said in a prepared statement.

"In this particular program, we are continuing with the MOX (mixed-oxide) facility design and construction, but are opting to look at other aspects, such as the immobilization facility, in possible future budget cycles," Mr. Morgan said.

The immobilization plant was one part of the Energy Department's "dual-track" approach to disposing of surplus plutonium - a dangerous, radioactive metal used in nuclear weapons. The agency also planned to use plutonium in MOX fuel for nuclear-power plants.

The immobilization plant, once scheduled to open later this decade, would treat about 19 tons of surplus plutonium by baking it into ceramic pucks. The site's Defense Waste Processing Facility then would encase the pucks inside stainless-steel canisters full of highly radioactive glass.

The canisters' extreme radioactivity would make it dangerous and difficult for anyone to retrieve the plutonium inside for use in nuclear weapons.

The plant would employ about 350 people, according to Energy Department estimates. Construction of the plant would create as many as 1,000 short-term jobs, according to estimates.

Construction would cost an estimated $680 million, according to Energy Department figures. Operation of the plant for 10 years would cost another $585 million, according to estimates.

Many nuclear watchdogs had supported the immobilization project, even pushing for the nation to immobilize all 55 tons of its surplus plutonium.

Instead, the Energy Department plans to use about 36 tons of the radioactive metal in MOX fuel - an endeavor that many activists regard as risky and dangerous.

Some observers expressed concern Monday about the decision to shelve the immobilization project.

"It's tragic that a very vital program to U.S. security is being hastily abandoned in this way," said Arjun Makhijani, the president of Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "Right now, there would be no backup plan to MOX, and the MOX program has many, many problems.

"I can't understand why, at a time when there are enormous budget surpluses, such vital programs costing so little would be cut."

The move could backfire, especially because agreements with Russia require the United States to immobilize some plutonium, said Tom Clements, the executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.

Halting the immobilization program would require amending those agreements and could alienate U.S. allies in Europe, Mr. Clements said.

"This is going to, very much in my opinion, disturb some of our European allies," he said. "The Energy Department's defunding of immobilization will reveal to the European allies that the United States is not as committed to plutonium disposition as it's been telling its partners.

"The United States has committed itself to a dual-track approach to plutonium disposition. We feel it's essential that immobilization be fully funded."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.