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July 18, 1997
Mr. Bert Stevenson
NEPA Compliance Officer
Office of Fissile Materials Disposition
U.S. Department of Energy
Post Office Box 23786
Washington, DC 20026-3786

Comments on the Scope of the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Environmental Impact Statement

Dear Mr. Stevenson:

I am writing to submit the Nuclear Control Institute's ("NCI") comments on the scope of the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Environmental Impact Statement ("SPDEIS"). A number of important weapons-plutonium disposition issues are not covered in the DOE's statement of the proposed scope (62 Federal Register 28009, May 22, 1997). We strongly urge you to include and analyze these issues in the draft SPDEIS.

1. The SPDEIS should include the environmental impacts of irradiation of MOX fuel in light-water reactors (LWRs) and CANDUs.

The proposed scope of the SPDEIS would include the environmental impacts of the immobilization process all the way through the pouring of the glass to create the final vitrified high-level waste form that meets the spent-fuel standard. However, the proposed SPDEIS would include environmental impacts of MOX options only through the fabrication of MOX fuel. Environmental impacts of reactor irradiation of this MOX fuel---an indispensable element of the MOX disposition option to meet the spent-fuel standard---would be excluded from this analysis. This would skew the analysis in favor of the MOX option, because it would exclude potentially significant environmental impacts that could result during reactor irradiation of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel. A fair and complete analysis should include all environmental impacts of both alternatives all the way through completion of the final waste form---completion of the vitrified high-level waste forms in the case of immobilization, and irradiation and discharge of MOX fuel in nuclear-power reactors in the case of the MOX option.

DOE might be contemplating separate site-specific EIS's for reactors that would irradiate MOX. While such site-specific analyses are important, they do not justify exclusion of reactor-irradiation environmental impacts from the SPDEIS. In fact, treating the MOX irradiation and discharge process in a separate EIS constitutes segmentation, an attempt to minimize the apparent environmental impacts of a federal action by analyzing separately each of several steps of that action. Federal courts have held such segmentation to be illegal under NEPA.

Issues with potential environmental impacts related to the reactor irradiation of MOX fuel include the following.

a. Plutonium conversion issues

Do any of the options under consideration for plutonium conversion to oxide involve aqueous processing? Is the option of using the reprocessing canyons at the Savannah River Site being maintained, and if so, how would this option affect DOE's schedule for the shutdown of these canyons? What are the differences in the type or amount of processing required to convert plutonium pits into oxide usable in MOX, as opposed to oxide usable in immobilized waste forms? If so, do these differences affect the need for aqueous processing?

b. Licensing and regulatory issues

How would NRC regulation of DOE facilities, such as the construction and operation of MOX fuel fabrication plant, be handled? If legislation enabling NRC regulation of DOE facilities is not adopted, would DOE proceed with construction and operation of a DOE MOX fuel fabrication plant that is not licensed by NRC, or of a privately owned and operated plant for which there is now legal authority for NRC licensing?

Given the anticipated long duration of the disposition mission, and the fact that almost all commercial nuclear plant operating licenses will expire in the next 25 years, will there be sufficient reactor capacity available to complete the irradiation of weapons plutonium MOX fuel?

c. Reactor safety issues

Use of MOX fuel could produce some or all of the following effects on reactor operation, with potentially grave environmental impacts, and therefore should be included within the scope of the draft SPDEIS:

Issues related to the viability of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel in reactors---such as limitations on permissable burn-up levels to prevent cladding failure in reactor accidents, and the effects of trace amounts of gallium in warhead plutonium---must also be fully analyzed for environmental impact.

d. Security issues

How will security be handled for the transportation of plutonium and fresh MOX fuel elements? Will the use of Safe Secure Transports (SSTs) be required for all domestic ground transportation? How will onsite security be upgraded at reactors that irradiate MOX fuel? At least one utility expressing interest in MOX fuel has indicated that they would seek exemptions from DOE special safeguards requirements for MOX fuel, and request that MOX be subject to only such security and safeguards as are now required for low-enriched uranium fuel. Would DOE consider granting such requests or would it require use of deadly force to protect MOX fuel on site?

2. The SPDEIS should include cost and non-proliferation issues.

In our October 1994 comments on the scope of the draft plutonium disposition programmatic environmental impact statement, NCI urged DOE to integrate cost and non-proliferation issues into its NEPA analysis. Instead, the Department split off these important issues into two separate reports, a Technical Summary Report and a Non-Proliferation Assessment. The Technical Summary Report was completed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory without benefit of public participation or input. Consequently, the first version of the report failed to include several important cost elements, resulting in a significant underestimation of the cost of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel disposition options. After NCI and a number of other public-interest groups objected, the Technical Summary Report was revised, but such major cost factors as fees that would have to be paid to nuclear electric utilities for their irradiation of MOX fuel (an expense that, DOE estimated in the revised report, could run as high as $500 million) were still not included in total cost figures for MOX options. Instead, they were treated as "cost uncertainties."

All anticipated costs should be included in the SPDEIS, as well as discussion of what sorts of costs DOE is and is not prepared to subsidize. For instance, would DOE subsidize the year-round operation of the WNP-2 reactor, which normally operates only intermittently due to seasonally plentiful hydroelectricity in the northwest, if the reactor were irradiating MOX as part of the disposition program? This subsidy alone could run into several hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the program.

The Non-Proliferation Assessment, also prepared outside the NEPA process, did not compare the proliferation risk factors of the various disposition options, nor did it provide any recommendations on which options were most or least desirable from a non-proliferation perspective, despite requests from NCI and other groups to include such analysis. A number of proliferation and safeguards concerns raised by NCI in comments on the draft Non-Proliferation Assessment, including the need to analyze actual operating experience with held-up plutonium and with process measurement uncertainties in commercial MOX fabrication plants in Europe (see comments below), were either ignored or treated superficially in the final assessment.

We therefore urge DOE to incorporate cost and non-proliferation issues into the SPDEIS. Those issues have been treated incompletely and inadequately in the non-NEPA analyses conducted to date by DOE. Morever, the earlier cost and non-proliferation analyses are not specific to the locations and particular technology options that will be considered in the site-specific SPDEIS.

3. The SPDEIS should analyze the need for establishing minimum safety and performance criteria for nuclear electric utilities that express interest in irradiating MOX.

Use of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel in commercial nuclear power reactors will increase the complexity of reactor operations, and will result in an unavoidable degradation of key safety margins (such as the excess shutdown margin). Consequently, utilities who wish to take on the additional challenge of using MOX will be expected to increase substantially the attention and resources devoted to safety matters. These utilities should have a demonstrated ability to cope efficiently with major changes to the design basis, and to respond effectively to unusual operating events. These concerns are more than hypothetical; one of the nuclear utilities most interested in MOX fuel, Commonwealth Edison, has perhaps the worst safety records in the industry, with six of its 12 nuclear plants on NRC's watch list.2 DOE and NRC should be prepared to posit minimum safety and performance criteria for such utilities, and the SPDEIS should establish a firm framework for the design and implementation of those criteria.

4. Issues related to the proposed fabrication of MOX in European facilities should be thoroughly considered in the SPDEIS.

DOE's proposed scope for the SPDEIS includes an alternative under which MOX lead test assemblies would be fabricated in European facilities, a costly and controversial alternative which could significantly delay implementation of plutonium disposition. This alternative also raises many safety and nonproliferation concerns which the SPDEIS should address.

a. Safety and security issues regarding shipment of plutonium and MOX

Recent studies suggest that containers for the sea and air shipment of plutonium and MOX might not withstand a maximum credible accident, and that IAEA standards for such containers are inadequate.3 Air shipment of plutonium and MOX fuel from or to the United States is effectively prohibited under the terms of the Scheuer Amendment, until a crashproof cask is licensed by the NRC.4 A full security assessment of the sea shipment of warhead plutonium from the United States to Europe, and of MOX fuel from Europe to the United States, should also be conducted. At minimum, an armed naval escort should be mandatory, comparable to or exceeding the capability of the escort the United States requires Japan to provide for its sea shipments of U.S.-controlled plutonium and MOX.

b. Safety and performance history of European MOX facilities

DOE should acquire historical data from Belgian, French, and U.K. MOX facilities relating to all aspects of safety and performance. These data should be made part of the public record. Also, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) has acknowledged that its MOX fuel fabrication plant at Sellafield is not capable of handling weapons-grade plutonium without significant modifications.5 Whether COGEMA's MELOX plant can handle weapons-grade plutonium is not known. DOE should establish for the public record the present ability of European MOX fabricators to use weapons-grade plutonium, what if any modifications to these fabrication plants would be required, and whether DOE is willing to subsidize such modifications. In what ways would the use of weapons-grade plutonium in these facilities affect safety parameters (for instance, worker exposure and criticality) and cost?

c. Safeguards status of European MOX facilities

DOE must establish to what extent European MOX fabrication plants are subject to IAEA safeguards. It is our understanding that IAEA does not have access required to verify independently the results of EURATOM safeguards at plutonium bulk-handling facilities.6 Would DOE require that any MOX fuel fabrication plant participating in the disposition program be under IAEA safeguards? How would the implementation of such safeguards be carried out?

5. The SPDEIS should analyze safety and safeguards issues related to the operation of MOX fuel fabrication plants.

The plutonium disposition Non-Proliferation Assessment, released in January 1997, takes a sanguine view of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on plutonium fuel cycles that is not supported by real-world experience. As NCI emphasized in comments on the PEIS, diversion risk at the fuel-fabrication stage of MOX disposition could be substantial. Difficulties at the Plutonium Fuel Processing Facility (PFPF) in Japan suggest that purportedly state-of-the-art MOX fabrication plants are difficult if not impossible to safeguard effectively on a timely detection basis.

In May 1994, the Nuclear Control Institute disclosed that a major plutonium inventory discrepancy had been building up at the PFPF since the plant began operating in 1988. The Japanese government and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asserted that this plutonium, amounting to about 70 kilograms, or more than eight significant quantities (SQs), was not missing because it had been measured as "held-up" material---that is, plutonium stuck to surfaces in the plant's process equipment. But such measurements were taken by non-destructive means such as neutron coincidence counting and were subject to significant uncertainties, perhaps as large as 30 percent in some instances. To deal with these uncertainties, the IAEA requested that Japan cut open the glove boxes to physically produce and measure the held-up plutonium for the purpose of verifying the plant's inventory. This request was strongly resisted by the Japanese and was not promptly met, as the IAEA had originally asked.

Eventually, at a reported cost of more than $100 million and after more than two years of clean-out operations, about 10 kilograms of plutonium (more than one SQ) are still not accounted for. PFPF thus meets neither the 1-SQ nor the timeliness safeguards criteria required by the IAEA. Fabrication scrap is also a significant source of measurement uncertainties; PFPF has generated about 100 to 150 kilograms of such plutonium-laden scrap. Despite these major unresolved problems, the Non-Proliferation Assessment dismisses concerns about safeguards at PFPF and similar facilities with a vague call for "a major emphasis in the design phase on the ability to accurately monitor and account for materials. . ."

MOX fabrication plants in Europe, which will be under consideration in the SPDEIS to produce warhead-plutonium MOX fuel, have not disclosed the operating history of their material control and accounting systems to permit any conclusion about the effectiveness of safeguards at these facilities. Yet, the Non-Proliferation Assessment posited the following assertion about the accuracy of EURATOM's plutonium and MOX measurements:

Recent standards issued by the European Community's nuclear agency (EURATOM), endorsed by the IAEA, indicate that currently achievable measurement accuracy for plutonium oxide is in the range of 99.9% (for systematic errors). Mixing the plutonium oxide with uranium oxide complicates the task of measuring the amount of plutonium somewhat, resulting in an estimated achievable measurement accuracy of 99.8%.7

This claim is not referenced and strains credulity in light of the problems experienced at PFPF, a plant based largely on French technology, and also in light of the lack of IAEA access to safeguards information on process flows in European MOX plants. Moreover, these quantitative claims about the effectiveness of EURATOM safeguards do not address the crucial issue of held-up plutonium. Indeed, DOE's Non-Proliferation Assessment specifically excludes consideration of the in-process inventory problem:

Thus, at a facility handling 5 tons per year of plutonium metal and oxide (such as a plutonium pit conversion facility), the sysematic measurement error, or MUF, would not be expected to be less than 5 kilograms per year (based only on the throughput, ignoring the facilities inventory), meaning that material accounting alone would not be expected to be able to detect diversions of less than 15 kilograms over a year's time.8 [emphasis added]

Thus, neither the IAEA nor the United States is now in a position to verify independently the safeguards effectiveness claims made by EURATOM. In the SPDEIS, DOE should provide actual data on safeguards results at European MOX fabrication plants, not merely safeguards standards, and if European operators or EURATOM refuse to provide such information, DOE should clearly state this fact in the SPDEIS.

NCI strongly urges DOE to include each of the issues discussed above in the draft SPDEIS.


Steven Dolley
Research Director

End Notes

1. For details on these and other MOX fuel safety issues, see Edwin Lyman, "Comments on the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement: Public and Occupational Health and Safety Impacts of Plutonium Disposition Alternatives," Revision 1, October 1996. Back to document

2. Steven Dolley, "Warhead Plutonium Disposition and Commonwealth Edison," Nuclear Control Institute, May 22, 1997. Back to document

3. ECO Engineering Inc., Annapolis, Maryland, "A Review of the Proposed Marine Transportation of Reprocessed Plutonium from Europe to Japan," study commissioned by the Nuclear Control Institute and Greenpeace International, March 30, 1992; Edwin Lyman, Nuclear Control Institute, "Safety Aspects of Unirradiated MOX Fuel Transport," February 28, 1997, International MOX Assessment, Citizens Nuclear Information Center, Tokyo, Japan (forthcoming). Back to document

4. Public Law 94-79, enacted August 9, 1975. To date NRC has not certified any cask as meeting the Scheuer criteria for plutonium air shipment. Back to document

5. "This plant [BNFL's Sellafield MOX plant] is not set up to handle weapon-grade plutonium. It would require modification to handle weapon-grade plutonium. BNFL haven't looked at it in any detail." Arthur Roberts, assistant director of MOX for BNFL, March 3, 1997, quoted in Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, "MOX Fabrication Capability of the New Sellafield MOX Plant," IEER memorandum, March 18, 1997. Back to document

6. At a 1996 briefing for public-interest groups, a high IAEA official confirmed that the Agency could not verify such results. For example, in France, he said, IAEA inspectors are limited to the spent-fuel receiving pool at La Hauge---meaning that they do not have access to the process stages of such plants. Back to document

7. Office of Nonproliferation and Arms Control, U.S. Department of Energy, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Assessment of Weapons-Usable Fissile Material Storage and Excess Plutonium Disposition Alternatives ["Non-Proliferation Assessment"], DOE/NN-0007, January 1997, p. 70. Back to document

8. Non-Proliferation Assessment, January 1997, p. 78. Back to document

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