The US Department of Energy (DoE) said it would convert weapons-grade plutonium into reactor fuel instead of immobilising some of it as vitrified waste.

The DoE concluded that the 1999 Clinton administration plan to mix about a quarter of the plutonium with other waste would be too expensive and still has some technological hurdles. The Clinton administration decided to pursue both routes because it was not certain that either one was technically feasible, and it was eager to ensure that it had at least one method of disposal. Dropping the vitrification method of disposal would save the US $2 billion, according to the DoE.

The MOX conversion process is expected to cost $3.8 billion over 20 years, including the construction of two new conversion facilities at the DoE’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. Rep Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said president Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget proposal will include more than $300 million for the planned MOX facility at SRS. Construction of the facilities is set to begin in fiscal year 2004.

Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in September 2000, both Russia and the USA committed to each dispose of 34 tonnes of surplus plutonium.

US energy secretary Spencer Abraham said that implementation of the agreement would help nuclear non-proliferation and security of both Russia and the USA. The Department of State and the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration will work with their counterparts in Russia to achieve the disposition of Russian surplus plutonium through the MOX process.

The announcement of backing for the SRS MOX facility has gone some way to addressing the concerns of South Carolina Gov Jim Hodges (see NEI, September 2001, p10). Hodges had maintained that shipping plutonium to SRS without a firm commitment to the MOX plant would turn his state into a permanent waste storage site. However, Hodges said many questions about the plutonium disposal plan still remain unanswered, including a timetable for shipments to South Carolina.

Following a consultation with DoE representatives, the Democrat governor said: “I made very clear to the DoE that we had a deal with the DoE before about how plutonium would be handled, and that it is now difficult for us to accept new proposals without being sceptical about whether or not these proposals would be funded and whether we would actually see them take place.”