Members of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance traveled to Chattanooga, TN on Tuesday, September 11, for a hearing hosted by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority on the plan to dispose of weapons grade (and some other) plutonium by processing it, turning it into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, and burning it in the Sequoyah and Browns Ferry reactors operated by TVA. The Sequoyah reactor is located on the banks of the Tennessee River just upstream from Chattanooga; it is one of the reactors NNSA wants to use to produce weapons tritium as well. The hearing was part of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Plutonium Disposition process. The Draft PD-SEIS is open for public comment. Details are available on the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability web site: www.ananuclear.org.
About a hundred people attended the hearing (at the tritium hearing in Cleveland, TN last fall, four members of the public showed up). Many of those who arrived on Tuesday evening at the Chattanooga Convention Center wore bright blue T-shirts emblazoned on the back with a giant atom and the words “American Nuclear Society.” They came from Chattanooga State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Georgia Tech. A number of the ANS members spoke, all remaining predictably on script. One young PhD who identified himself as working at Oak Ridge National Lab decried the misinformation about the dangers of plutonium which he traced back almost twenty years (?) and said he would take the Pepsi challenge and drink plutonium without hesitation. None was offered at the hearing.
One elderly PhD identified himself as “pro-nuclear, strongly pro-nuclear” and went on to say, “but we have to tell the truth.” He then outlined the dangers of plutonium and took a position against burning MOX in TVA’s reactors.
Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability spoke (and waved papers around) for more than the allotted four minutes—the moderator seemed to know Tom’s knowledge base ran deeper than anyone else in the room, including the federal officials responsible for the program. After the hearing, people surrounded Tom to get more information.
An official from Duke power spoke, apparently shadowing Tom Clements, to declare the reason Duke power pulled its test plutonium assemblies from the Catawba reactor in South Carolina, aborting its test at the halfway point, had nothing to do with the plutonium fuel. “It was fine,” he said. “The problem was an anomaly with the rest of the fuel assembly. We learned what we needed to about the MOX fuel.” He did not note whether they learned what they needed to about the rest of the assembly, like whether its “anomaly” was related to the MOX fuel rods. He also noted later the decision was a business decision—MOX fuel will be much more expensive than regular Uranium reactor fuel.
OREPA’s Ralph Hutchison spoke near the end of the meeting. His comments follow.
There once was a wealthy king whose daughter, the princess, was rescured from great peril by a common subject. For a reward, the grateful King promised his subject “anything you ask.” The subject, noticing the King’s chessboard, extracted a grain of rice from his pocket and placed it on the corner square. “I ask one grain of rice form the royal granary today,” he said, placing two grains on the second square, “and two grains tomorrow.” He placed four grains on the third square, “And four grains on the third day, and eight on the fourth, continuing until the board is full on the 64th day.” The king was delighted to grant the request of the simpleton who could have had anything he wanted, and chose only a measly portion of rice.
Of course, long before the chessboard was full, the simpleton owned the King’s granary and all the kingdom—the King could not satisfy his debt with all the rice in the world!
There are seven kinds of excess plutonium covered in this SEIS, some from pits, some from non-pit sources. Some is metal, some is oxide, some is still in pit form. Some is used fuel, some is scraps and residue. Some is contaminated with other materials, some not so much. For each kind there are several disposition options available from storage to MOX fuel to vitrification to storage at WIPP. Some to be processed at H-Canyon/HB-Line and shipped to the Defense Waste Processing Facility; some to be processed at the Mox Fuel Fabrication Facility. Some maybe processed at PF-4 at Los Alamos, some burned as fuel in Sequoyah reactors or the Browns Ferry exploding reactor or a mythical reactor to be named later. And some we don’t yet have specific proposals for.
The problem with this chaos isn’t that it taxes my little mind; that happens often and I’ve grown used to it.
The problem is that hazard increases with complexity. The more complicated the decision, the more risk is involved—the risk that you make a bad decision or overlook an important factor, the risk of corruption and fraud, the risk of unintended and unforeseen consequences. And when dealing with something as fraught with danger as plutonium—weapons grade plutonium—there is no margin for error. Common sense would dictate making this decision as cleanly as possible—which would be vitrification, once the preferred option, now hardly mentioned at all.
Compounding the problem is the snazzy little slanted-letter logo on the front of the Draft SPD-SEIS, the one that says NNSA.
Because if there is one thing NNSA can’t do, it is manage complexity. Don’t take my word for it—look at the timeline and cost estimates for the MFFF. It’s not an anomaly. Same thing at NIF at Livermore. And the same scenario is unfolding, in real time, with the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge. The General Accounting Office has noticed—they’ve published and testified to the management incompetence of NNSA. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has noticed, too, as has the Inspector General’s Office.
I have to say, the incapacity of NNSA to do even one thing right—like simply securing a uranium storage facility nestled in a valley from intruders—has led me to ask the existential question: should NNSA even continue to exist?
The bizarre matrix of Plutonium disposition options is just more evidence of the problem. And at its heart, in its never-ending quest to provide contractors with dollars, NNSA is giving up the central goal of plutonium disposition, because fabricating MOX fuel and burning it in reactors does not get rid of plutonium and it’s not the most proliferation-resistant option we have. In Russia, they are doing it, and they plan to reprocess the spent MOX to extract plutonium, an option the US has declined to foreswear as well.
Out of this morass of thinking, some wise person has proposed burning MOX fuel in TVA’s Sequoyah reactor, just a few miles upstream from downtown Chattanooga. TVA is the vendor of choice because no private company is willing to take on the risk. Well, the people of Chattanooga and Alabama should not be asked to take on the risk, either. TVA is the vendor of choice because they are accountable to no one except a few Congresspeople who can be—and have been—bought for campaign donations.
The Tennessee River, on whose banks the Sequoyah nuclear reactor stands, has borne significant environmental insults over the years from contamination flushed out of the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation and, more recently, tritium contamination from Watts Bar—another idea brought to you by the NNSA/TVA team, where their nicely laid plans didn’t account for the higher than expected levels of leakage. Do these plans incorporate the plans to produce tritium in these reactors? Do they address the added security risks when Sequoyah is burning weapons grade plutonium and producing nuclear weapons tritium at the same time? Does anyone even understand the risks? Even with my little mind, I know the answer to that last one is no.
Tens of thousands of people rely on the water of the Tennessee River, immediately downstream from the Sequoyah Nuclear plant, for their drinking water. Placing this at risk unnecessarily is unconscionable.
It is time for NNSA to push itself back from the money table and put its energy into doing the right thing. Vitrify our surplus plutonium to maximize its proliferation resistance; it was right ten years ago, it was right five years ago, and it’s right now. It will save us billions of dollars, it can be done faster and safer. I freely admit to being a simpleton compared to some of the brains in this room, but the lesson of our rice counter applies—sometimes the simplest option is the winning option.
I’d like to say one other thing. I am really pleased to see so many students and others here from the American Nuclear Society—sometimes there are only a few people at these hearings. As a layperson, I want to say that we—society as a whole—doesn’t need you to be a cheerleader for MOX. We need you to identify the challenges—and there are more than a few—and to ask the hard questions that will lead to safety. We need you to address and solve problems. The lack of evidence of critical thinking here tonight is scary to me. So I want to say I hope you will distinguish yourselves by asking, and answering, the hard questions.
(photo by Tom Clements)