Originally created 03/10/02

SRS halts treatment program



By 2035, Savannah River Site will have received 47 tons of spent nuclear-reactor fuel from foreign and domestic research reactors.

But site officials aren't sure what they're going to do with it.

A 6-year-old program to develop a "melt-and-dilute" plant to treat the fuel has been suspended. Site officials now are looking at other ways to dispose of the fuel, which contains uranium that many people want to ensure could never be used in nuclear weapons.

Work on the melt-and-dilute plant was stopped after a U.S. Department of Energy review, said Roy Schepens, the department's assistant manager for facilities and materials stabilization at SRS.

The review found that Energy Department sites should develop a standard approach to disposing spent fuel. Only SRS was using the melt-and-dilute option, Mr. Schepens said.

"We just need to make sure that we're on the most cost-effective path for the department," he said.

Besides melt-and-dilute, at least two other options are being evaluated, Mr. Schepens said. Under one scenario, the fuel would be packaged and shipped as-is to a repository for burial, he said.

Another plan would "reprocess" the fuel by dissolving it in the massive "H-Canyon" plant at SRS, he said.

With the melt-and-dilute option, a new plant would be built to melt the fuel rods, then mix the molten metal with weaker uranium to reduce its ability to be used in weapons. The metal would be formed into small disks, then buried in an off-site repository.

All three options would cost about $2 billion, Mr. Schepens said.

SRS officials said they hoped to make a decision by Sept. 31, the end of the federal fiscal year. In the meantime, all work on the melt-and-dilute plan has been halted.

The project's $2.5 million budget for 2002 was used to pay for expenses related to the program's suspension, Mr. Schepens said. The program is not slated to be funded in fiscal year 2003, which begins Oct. 1, he said.

Scientists and researchers who had been working on the melt-and-dilute program have been reassigned, Mr. Schepens said.

"We're basically putting the program in layup from an equipment and paperwork standpoint, so it can be retrieved should the department decide to do so," he said.

The suspension drew mixed reactions among SRS observers. The Nuclear Control Institute, in Washington, criticized the decision.

"In more and more instances, they seem to be choosing more expensive, dirtier, and more proliferation-prone options for waste-management at SRS," said Ed Lyman, the institute's scientific director.

Direct disposal of the fuel, as-is, might be acceptable to the institute, Dr. Lyman said. But he said he feared SRS officials would choose to reprocess the fuel.

That option would create more radioactive waste at the site, Dr. Lyman said.

"That would be absolutely the worst option," he said. "There's no technical reason that this material would have to be reprocessed. It's simply going to contribute to the environmental and proliferation risks posed by SRS operation."

But site officials said the H-Canyon approach was a viable option.

"Some of the spent fuel that we do have on site right now we are stabilizing through H-Canyon today," Mr. Schepens said. "As long as H-Canyon is here and is viable, we can send the spent fuel through it."

Some observers have long spurned the melt-and-dilute program for other alternatives, including reprocessing.

The federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board advised against melt-and-dilute in 1999. The board said the technology was unproven compared to reprocessing, and called the SRS canyons "workhorses" in stabilizing spent fuel and other radioactive materials.

"Where appropriate, the Energy Department should protect and capitalize on its existing capability rather than hastening to replace it," board Chairman John T. Conway wrote.

The board is monitoring the latest developments, its vice chairman said Thursday.

"We're watching as to what they will come up with as an alternate from a safety point of view," A.J. Eggenberger said during a telephone interview from Washington.

"It's my understanding that there have been no firm proposals at this point, so that's about where we are."

"We're basically putting the program in layup from an equipment and paperwork standpoint, so it can be retrieved should the department decide to do so." - Roy Schepens, the Energy Department's assistant manager for facilities and materials stabilization at SRS

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.