Here we go again, another costly and controversial plutonium pit-production project that would generate more nuclear waste while raising the risks of nuclear accidents and a dangerous new nuclear arms race. Will the Rocky Flats plutonium disaster be repeated?
As the coronavirus has pushed many important issues out of the news, you might not have heard that the U.S. Department of Energy is quietly planning to locate new nuclear bomb pit-production facilities at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina
A public comment period recently closed on a Los Alamos environmental pit-production document but comments are being accepted on a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the SRS pit proposal through June 2. As the proposed SRS plutonium facility has potential environmental and health impacts, on top of security and cost concerns, I urge you take a few minutes to learn more about it and to then take action by submitting a formal comment on the proposal. (Draft text follows.)
DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is proposing to locate the “Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF)”at SRS in order to produce 50 or more plutonium “pits” per year. A pit is the hollow plutonium sphere that goes into all U.S. nuclear weapons and would be cast from liquid plutonium. NNSA also plans to produce 30 or more pits per year at Los Alamos. The 80+ ppy would be for new-design weapons and for around 4000 weapons in the current stockpile, an amount far beyond what could be claimed as being a deterrent force and essentially an amount of weapons being kept to fight a disastrous nuclear war.
The SRS Plutonium Bomb Plant would be located in the partially constructed facility at SRS that was to make nuclear reactor fuel – mixed uranium-plutonium oxide, or MOX – from surplus weapons plutonium. The MOX project, due to massive cost overruns and schedule delays and management and construction problems, was halted in October 2018 after a waste of $8 billion. Now, almost 12 metric tons of plutonium sit at SRS. Much of that plutonium was shipped from Rocky Flats during the “clean up,” and there is still no clear plan to remove it from South Carolina. DOE has proposed to ship most of this plutonium as waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, mixed with a secret material to stymie its extraction.
In an effort to fill the funding hole created by termination of the MOX project, NNSA, in an April 3 Federal Register notice released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Plutonium Pit Production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and opened a public comment period. Due to a request by the groups in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and others, the comment period has been extended to June 2, so we need to act now to get our views into the record.
Of main environmental concern is that this new pit “mission” is something SRS has never before done and will thus be fraught with risks. NNSA, motivated by parochial financial interests, aims to start pit production at SRS by 2030. But it’s clear that the project’s $4 billion cost, with $440 million requested for Fiscal Year 2021, and the fast timeline already place the project in doubt. Congress has yet to fully embrace the project and the fight over it is now taking place in the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees.
The new pit plant would mean import of additional tons of plutonium into South Carolina – from DOE’s pit storage site at Pantex in TX – which could be stranded in SC if the project falters or is halted when operating. Sound familiar? In addition to risks of a nuclear “criticality” accident or plutonium release – something that still haunts the Rocky Flats area – significant amounts of various types of chemical and nuclear waste would be produced. While NNSA’s figures are suspect, they estimate in the draft EIS amounts of chemical waste, transuranic (plutonium) waste and low-level nuclear waste that would be generated, all new waste streams at the site. Some waste streams are proposed to be dumped off site at DOE sites or commercial dumps and NNSA estimates a minimum of 7800 cubic feet of LLW per year could be dumped at SRS in unlined trenches.
NNSA has not established that new pit production is needed. Los Alamos is authorized to produce 20 pits per year in the aftermath of closure of RF but has never come close to meeting that goal. And, a 2007 a report entitled “Pit Lifetime” by the JASON group of experts stated that “most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium.” NNSA was charged in March 2018 in the Senate report on the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for FY2019 to contract with JASON to do an update on its 2007 report. In its rush to establish new pit production, NNSA has been sitting on its hands regarding that new study. But recent communication to Congress shows NNSA is starting to feel the heat for its inaction.
Do we really need pit production and more nuclear waste at SRS? The focus must stay on cleaning up tens of millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste at SRS (a by-product of plutonium production) and remediation of waste dumped into the ground. Clean-up employs the bulk of the 11,000 workers at SRS and takes the biggest share by far of the budget at the site. While pit production would create jobs and provide federal funding to large contractors, do we really want more waste at SRS and more risk of nuclear accident, while expanding the risk of a new nuclear arms race? Let’s push DOE to keep clean-up first and to expand new jobs in the clean energy sector.
It should be pointed out the historic connection between SRS and Rocky Flats has existed long before RF operations ceased in 1989. SRS had 5 nuclear reactors dedicated to producing nuclear weapons materials and shipped about 36 metric tons of plutonium to RF for pit production. (An additional 67 MT of plutonium was produced at the Hanford site in Washington State and shipped to RF.) Those of us in Colorado well know the environmental and health damage caused by processing plutonium into pits and don’t want to see a repeat of that. Likewise, disarmament of nuclear weapons must be renewed so as to preclude more production of pits.
Support is strong in South Carolina of cleaning up SRS but local boosters are eyeing the money pit production would bring to contractors. Keep in mind that the US Government wants to spend a whopping trillion dollars over the next 30 years to maintain a massive nuclear weapons stockpile planned to be used for fighting a senseless, unimaginably destructive nuclear war. And DOE and DOD contractors are greedily anticipating getting rich off planning for nuclear war.
For more information, see fact sheets on the pit issue by Savannah River Site Watch and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
HERE IS A SAMPLE LETTER YOU CAN REVISE TO MAKE PERSONAL.
Comments on the Draft EIS on the Proposed SRS Plutonium Bomb Plant
Dear Ms. Nelson:
Ms. Jennifer Nelson
NEPA Compliance Officer
National Nuclear Security Administration
Savannah River Field Office, P.O. Box A
Aiken, South Carolina 29802
I hereby submit the following comments on the proposed “Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF)” and ask that they be made part of the official National Environmental Policy Act record.
I am concerned about the proposal to expand the role of the Savannah River Site into the production of plutonium pits, a job with which the site has no experience. Being familiar with the nightmare caused by pit production at Rocky Flats, I do not want to see a repeat of that disaster. I raise the issues below to be responded to in any final EIS.
Pit production would produce a host of chemical and nuclear waste streams and it is unacceptable that dumping of low-level nuclear waste in unlined trenches at SRS is being considered.
Pit production could distract from the main mission of the site and potentially threaten the largest amount of funding – cleaning up tens of millions of gallons left over from production of plutonium and nuclear weapons materials.
Producing new-design nuclear weapons, the justification of which is doubtful, and replacing pits in the entire stockpile, which appears to be the unstated goal, could stimulate a costly new nuclear arms race.
The EIS must reveal if the goal is to replace all pits in all U.S. deployed and reserve nuclear weapons and how maintaining a massive stockpile for the foreseeable future complies with the disarmament obligations stated in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “”pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
The draft EIS waves off “reuse” of existing pits – some 15,000 or more of them are in storage at DOE’s Pantex site in TX – and it is imperative that pit reuse and refurbishment be thoroughly analyzed.
The JASON group stated in a 2007 report that pits have a minimum of 100 years. Given this, why are new pits needed when old ones can be reused or refurbished? NNSA has been directed by Congress to update the JASON study but has been dragging its feet. When will the new study be completed and what’s the rush to move forward without important pit-aging data?
Clarify the status of pits that may have been set aside to study the effects of aging. Provide data from these experiments for the EIS record.
Please explain what lessons have been learned from the Rocky Flats pit-production disaster and what information and data is being entered into the EIS record from Rocky Flats. Additionally, clarify if any information being provided by former Rocky Flats workers is informing pit-production proposals.
The discussion of the exact technology chosen to be used to purifying plutonium at SRS is lacking, as is an analysis of the environmental and health impacts associated with this.
As plutonium was stranded at SRS when the MOX project collapsed, what would prevent more plutonium ending up at SRS if the pit project was terminated mid-stream or halted due to an accident?
Before “repurposing” of the ill-constructed MOX plant is considered, there must be investigations into potential waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at the MOX debacle and why $8 billion was wasted on the project without anyone being held accountable.
Preparation of an over-arching Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) which would examine the need for expanded pit production and pit reuse and the role of DOE sites across the country is legally mandated. The role of DOE sites in pit planning and production, including SRS, Los Alamos, Pantex, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Sandia, Y-12 in Tennessee and the Kansas City Plant (which manufactures on-nuclear weapons components), must be thoroughly examined in the PEIS. The PEIS must be completed before the EIS on SRS pit production is finalized.
In conclusion, I support the “no action” alternative whereby the poorly constructed MOX facility would not be converted to plutonium pit production and new pit production facilities would not be pursued at SRS or Los Alamos.
Thank you for considering my views and for responding to them in the event that a final EIS is prepared.