Securing U.S. Nuclear Materials:

DOE Needs to Take Action to Safely Consolidate Plutonium

GAO-05-665: Published: Jul 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Aug 19, 2005.

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Plutonium is very hazardous to human health and the environment and requires extensive security because of its potential use in a nuclear weapon. The Department of Energy (DOE) stores about 50 metric tons of plutonium that is no longer needed by the United States for nuclear weapons. Some of this plutonium is contaminated metal, oxides, solutions, and residues remaining from the nuclear weapons production process. To improve security and reduce plutonium storage costs, DOE plans to establish enough storage capacity at its Savannah River Site (SRS) in the event it decides to consolidate its plutonium at SRS until it can be permanently disposed of in a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which DOE can consolidate this plutonium at SRS and (2) SRS's capacity to monitor plutonium storage containers.

DOE cannot yet consolidate its excess plutonium at SRS for several reasons. First, DOE has not completed a plan to process the plutonium into a form for permanent disposition, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002. Without such a plan, DOE cannot ship additional plutonium to SRS. Second, SRS cannot receive all of the plutonium from DOE's Hanford Site because it is not in a form SRS planned to store. Specifically, about one-fifth of Hanford's plutonium is in the form of 12-foot-long nuclear fuel rods, which Hanford had planned to ship intact to SRS as part of its efforts to accelerate the cleanup and demolition of its closed nuclear facilities. However, SRS's storage plan called for storing DOE's standard storage containers and not intact fuel rods. Recent changes in DOE's security requirements have complicated SRS's storage plans by eliminating one facility that DOE planned to use to store plutonium. Until DOE develops a permanent disposition plan, additional plutonium cannot be shipped to SRS and DOE will not achieve the cost savings and security improvements that consolidation could offer. Continued storage at Hanford will cost an additional approximately $85 million annually and will threaten that site's achievement of the milestones in its accelerated cleanup plan. In addition, DOE lacks the capability to fully monitor the condition of the plutonium necessary to ensure continued safe storage. The facility at SRS that DOE plans to use to store plutonium lacks adequate safety systems to conduct monitoring of storage containers. Without a monitoring capability, DOE faces increased risks of an accidental plutonium release that could harm workers, the public, and/or the environment. DOE had planned to construct a monitoring capability in another building at SRS that already had the safety systems needed to work with plutonium. However, this building would not have had sufficient security to conduct all of the required monitoring activities. In addition, this building also has other serious safety problems. Faced with these challenges, DOE announced in April 2005 that it would have SRS's storage facility upgraded to conduct plutonium monitoring.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2007, DOE issued a plan for the disposition of defense plutonium materials that were originally destined for the cancelled Plutonium Immobilization Plant that was to be constructed at DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. This September 2007 plan also contained an April 2007 business case analysis that analyzed the environmental impact, national security implications, costs, and schedules of alternatives to consolidate, store, and dispose of plutonium at existing facilities or at a new facility that could be constructed by DOE. In this plan, DOE concluded that the construction of a new, small-scale plutonium vitrification facility would effectively deal with plutonium inventories in the department that could not be converted into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility currently under construction at SRS. The September 2007 plan, in conjunction with the April 2007 analysis of DOE's current plutonium storage capabilities as well as the impacts of various plutonium disposition alternatives, constitutes the comprehensive strategy sought in our 2005 recommendation. We are therefore closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure the continued safe and secure storage of DOE's excess plutonium inventories, the Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive strategy for the consolidation, storage, and disposition of DOE's excess plutonium. In particular, this strategy should assess the storage, monitoring, and security capabilities of all of DOE's sites currently storing plutonium. Furthermore, the strategy should analyze the environmental impact, national security implications, costs, and schedules to safely consolidate, store, and eventually dispose of DOE's plutonium at existing facilities and/or at a new storage facility constructed at one of its sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since our report was issued in 2007, DOE's Office of Environmental Management has improved its coordination of plutonium disposition activities with affected sites and program offices across the department. For example, as DOE stated in its response to our July 2008 report on DOE's plans to process nuclear materials such as plutonium in the H-Canyon facility at DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS), DOE stated that the Office of Environmental Management is closely coordinating its activities with the new Office of Nuclear Material Integration within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). NNSA's Office of Nuclear Material Integration is intended to provide a coordinating function for DOE's nuclear material consolidation and disposition activities that, previously, DOE's Nuclear Materials Disposition and Consolidation Coordination Committee had been performing. This office has been working to ensure that each DOE site's cleanup goals and timeframes do not conflict with the department's comprehensive strategy for plutonium consolidation, storage, and disposition. DOE further affirmed the responsibilities of this office in subsequent November 2008 correspondence with GAO on our H-Canyon report. Therefore, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: When this comprehensive strategy is completed, to ensure the continued safe and secure storage of DOE's excess plutonium inventories, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that each of DOE's facilities' cleanup plans are reviewed to ensure that each site's cleanup goals and time frames are consistent with the department's comprehensive strategy for plutonium consolidation, storage, and disposition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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