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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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Energy 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.

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