Department of Energy:

Plutonium Needs, Costs, and Management Programs

RCED-97-98: Published: Apr 17, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 17, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) management of its plutonium inventory, focusing on: (1) how much plutonium the United States allocated for national security needs, how much it designated as excess, and how DOE determined these amounts; (2) DOE's estimates of the current and near-term costs for managing plutonium; and (3) DOE's estimates of the long-term costs for managing plutonium.

GAO noted that: (1) the United States allocated 46.8 metric tons of its 99.5 metric-ton plutonium inventory for national security purposes and designated the remaining 52.7 metric tons as excess; (2) to determine how much plutonium was needed for national security, DOE reviewed its plutonium inventory database; (3) in general, the plutonium in the custody of the Department of Defense and some of the plutonium managed by DOE's Defense Programs (the organization responsible for supporting the nation's nuclear weapons) was categorized as needed for national security purposes; (4) the remaining plutonium managed by Defense Programs and other DOE organizations was categorized as excess to national security needs and will ultimately be disposed of; (5) the national security plutonium is further divided into several subcategories; (6) DOE has a technical basis to support the need for the amounts of plutonium it holds in most of its national security needs, but not for the plutonium it holds for reliability replacement warheads and strategic reserves; (7) from fiscal year (FY) 1995 through FY 2002, DOE expects to spend about $18.8 billion on plutonium management and related activities; (8) these costs consist of about $10.5 billion for plutonium inventory management activities, including approximately $1.8 billion for national security plutonium and $8.7 billion for excess plutonium; (9) DOE expects to spend another $8.3 billion for plutonium-related waste management and site cleanup activities; (10) the costs of managing excess plutonium are about four times greater than the costs of managing national security plutonium because much of the excess plutonium is held in unstable forms and requires special management activities, such as handling, processing, and packaging; (11) national security plutonium is generally contained in more stable forms, such as metals and weapons components, and therefore requires less management; (12) DOE also expects to spend over $3 billion for longer-term plutonium storage and conversion activities through about 2023; (13) this estimate is based on DOE's plans for storing the excess plutonium and converting it to forms that will make it more difficult to reuse in nuclear weapons; and (14) however, DOE's cost and schedule estimates are subject to many uncertainties, a number of which stem from the relative immaturity of the planned conversion technologies.

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