From: H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press
Published January 31, 2005 12:00 AM

Commission Staff Calls Risks of Proposed Plutonium Conversion Plant Minimal

WASHINGTON — The government moved a step closer Friday to gaining approval to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium by turning it into a less dangerous fuel for commercial power reactors.


The staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that the commission approve licenses for building a plant at the federal Savannah River complex in South Carolina where the plutonium would be processed into a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel.


Some environmentalists and nuclear nonproliferation advocates have opposed the conversion plans, arguing plutonium should not be used to make commercial reactor fuel and that, instead, the weapons-grade material should be encased in glass and buried.


While the NRC staff acknowledged a severe accident at the proposed facility could cause additional latent cancer fatalities among workers and the public, it said "the likelihood of such an accident occurring is expected to be very low, highly unlikely."


"The overall benefits of the proposed MOX facility outweigh its disadvantages and cost," the NRC staff concluded in a final environmental impact report on the proposed project. The commission is expected to decide in the coming months whether to issue a construction license -- and later, an operating permit -- for the facility.


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The conversion to mixed-oxide fuel is a key part of the Bush administration's effort to safeguard the tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium held by both the United States and Russia and reduce the risks of the material being obtained by terrorists or a rogue state.


Under an agreement with Russia, the United States plans to blend 34 tons of U.S. plutonium no longer needed for warheads with depleted uranium so it can no longer be used in a bomb and can be used in a commercial power reactor. Russia would also build a conversion plant for 34 tons of its excess plutonium.


The Energy Department had hoped to begin building the conversion plant at Savannah River later this year, but construction has been held up because of complications that have delayed construction of a facility in Russia.


Tom Clements, an adviser to Greenpeace International on nuclear issues, called the NRC staff report "woefully inadequate" and criticized its dismissal of health and environmental risks should there be a release of radiation.


"They have to plan for the eventuality that there is some kind of accident," said Clements. "Basically the have just waved it off as something being acceptable."


The NRC staff report said the primary benefit of the conversion program would be the reduction in the amount of excess plutonium under storage. It concluded that converting the material to a reactor-suitable mixed-oxide fuel is safer than continued storage of surplus plutonium.


The report said the routine operation of a conversion plant and proposed support facilities would pose virtually no radiological risk to people or the environment within 50 miles of the complex.


But it acknowledged an accidental release of radioactive tritium from a plutonium disassembly facility to be built as part of the project could cause between three and 100 additional latent cancer fatalities, with higher estimates if contaminated food is eaten.


"However, it is regarded as highly unlikely that such an accident would occur and the risk to any population, including low-income and minority communities, is considered to be low," concluded the NRC staff report.


Source: Associated Press


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