Tom Clements, executive director of the nonprofit Savannah River Site Watch, said the unspent fuel rods at Los Alamos contain weapons-grade plutonium. He also contended the proposed disposal method is improper and potentially dangerous. The material could get in the wrong hands or a waste barrel could burst, he said
The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to move weapons-grade plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory to an underground storage site in Southern New Mexico that nuclear watchdogs say is not intended to hold such high-level waste.
The plan could pose a security risk, argued the leader of one watchdog group, who believes officials should conduct more analysis before moving forward.
About 26.4 kilograms of unspent nuclear fuel rods, which have been stored at Los Alamos’ plutonium plant since 2005, must be cleared out to make room for the production of new pits, the softball-sized cores that trigger warheads, according to an August report.
A federal law limits the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad to storing transuranic waste — generally, materials contaminated with man-made radioactive elements that have atomic numbers higher than uranium in the periodic table. Most of the waste is produced from recycling spent fuel or using plutonium to fabricate nuclear weapons.
The 21-year-old repository, which receives legacy weapons-production waste from the Los Alamos lab, as well as the decommissioned Hanford Site in Washington state and other sources, was shut down in 2014 after a waste drum from Los Alamos erupted in a deep underground salt cavern. The radiation leak led to a two-year, $2 billion cleanup effort.
WIPP’s permit is set to expire in 2024, but federal agencies have proposed extending its life for another 60 years, especially as the government prepares for mass pit production as part of a weapons modernization plan.
Critics warn this could lead to higher-level nuclear waste being held at the site.
Tom Clements, executive director of the nonprofit Savannah River Site Watch, said the unspent fuel rods at Los Alamos contain weapons-grade plutonium. He also contended the proposed disposal method is improper and potentially dangerous. The material could get in the wrong hands or a waste barrel could burst, he said.
The federal report issued in August, a supplemental analysis to a 2008 environmental study of the statewide effects of plutonium work at the Los Alamos lab, says the fuel rods are “mixed oxide” — a blend of uranium and plutonium oxide — which is commonly used in European nuclear reactors.
The rods were processed in France and sent to Los Alamos as prototypes for the mixed-oxide fuel that was to be produced at a Savannah River Site plant in South Carolina.
Construction of Savannah River’s mixed-oxide plant was halted in 2018 due to immense cost overruns. Officials now hope to overhaul that facility to produce 50 pits a year in addition to the 30 pits that would be made at the Los Alamos lab.
National Nuclear Security Administration officials say the rods at Los Alamos are eligible for disposal at WIPP because they are “unirradiated” — meaning they were never used — and are not as radioactive as spent fuel.
“With termination of the MOX fuel fabrication facility, there is little need to retain the materials and they are taking up space,” the National Nuclear Security Administration said in an emailed statement.
Current plans call for breaking the rods into smaller pieces and repackaging them in 200 drums that would be stored at WIPP.
But Clements said breaking up the rods could leave intact many of the pellets that contain weapons-grade plutonium.
“I think they need to put it on hold until they answer a lot of the environmental and security questions,” he said.
The barrels will contain enough of this plutonium to make a half a dozen or more bombs, Clements said. That’s why mixed-oxide fuel is stored at high-level security sites, he added.
Spent fuel rods must be ground into fine granules and then blended with a material that neutralizes the plutonium, Clements said, noting Savannah River Site has the only facility that does this.
He said nuclear officials appear to be looking at a shortcut. “They’re trying to avoid shipping it across the country.”
The supplemental analysis for Los Alamos National Laboratory’s proposed pit production program makes a few scattered references to repackaging the fuel rods to make space for resuming and expanding pit production at the plutonium facility.
“It’s cursory and inadequate,” Clements said. “Is WIPP the best place to dispose of it? Maybe. But it needs more in-depth analysis.”