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Plutonium a Hanford hurdle

Associated Press

RICHLAND – The U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to come up with a suitable plan for processing and shipping excess plutonium from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to its nuclear site in South Carolina could threaten Hanford cleanup, a new report says.

To lower costs and improve security, the Energy Department is considering consolidating plutonium no longer needed for weapons production at its Savannah River site in South Carolina until it can be stored permanently in a nuclear waste repository. Most of that roughly 50 metric tons of plutonium is at Hanford.

Under an accelerated cleanup plan, plutonium must be shipped out of the Hanford site by the end of 2006. However, the Energy Department has not yet completed a plan to process the plutonium into a form suitable for permanent storage and can’t ship it to Savannah River, the Government Accountability Office said in a July report to Congress released Friday.

Continued plutonium storage at Hanford will cost about $85 million annually and will threaten the agency’s ability to meet deadlines under its accelerated cleanup plan, the report said.

In addition, about 20 percent of Hanford’s plutonium is in the form of unused 12-foot fuel rods from the Fast Flux Test Facility, a one-of-a-kind reactor at the site. The fuel rods are not scheduled to be disassembled under Hanford’s cleanup plan, but storage at Savannah River would require the plutonium to be stored in 10-inch containers.

“DOE is facing these storage challenges because of its failure to adequately plan for plutonium consolidation and disposition,” the report said. “Until DOE develops a plan to process the plutonium for permanent disposition, additional plutonium cannot be shipped to SRS and DOE will not achieve the cost savings and security improvements that plutonium consolidation could offer.”

The report recommended the Energy Department develop a comprehensive strategy for consolidating excess plutonium, then review site-cleanup plans to ensure they are consistent with that strategy.

In its response, the Energy Department argued it is in the process of developing its comprehensive plan for consolidation. A new committee was created to do that, the agency said.

“This strategic plan will encompass the comprehensive strategy called for in your first recommendation,” wrote Charles Anderson, the Energy Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, in a June letter to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

For 40 years, the Hanford nuclear site made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, beginning with the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to total $50 billion to $60 billion. Cleanup is scheduled to be completed by 2035.

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