Ground Zero

letters@govexec.com

Sprawling over 310 square miles of South Carolina forest and swampland is the Savannah River Site (SRS), one of the most important nuclear wea-pons installations in Cold War-era America.

For four decades, SRS-located on the Savannah River across from Augusta, Ga.-produced tritium and plutonium, key ingredients in the buildup of America's nuclear arsenal. To build the complex, contractors had to relocate 6,000 people from their homes. Today, all that remains of the former town of Ellenton is a handful of ghostly curb cuts and driveways.

Nowadays, wild turkeys occasionally strut across the verdant landscape, but the often-messy industrial processes at SRS left a legacy of environmental damage. Local residents are discouraged from eating fish from the Savannah River, in part because of groundwater contamination caused by SRS. Still, the decades-long influx of scientists and engineers into this once-isolated and rural corner of South Carolina has turned the region into an affluent, educated oasis. Almost without exception, local residents welcomed the federal presence and expressed pride in the work carried out inside the site's well-fortified gates--work that was considered to be so top-secret that trains crisscrossing the site were carefully shuttered to prevent unauthorized viewing of equipment.

Then, as the Cold War wound down, SRS-like other facilities in America's archipelago of nuclear installations-began losing some of its missions. The reactors that once churned out radioactive materials were shut down. A workforce that once topped 25,000 slipped to its present level of 14,000.

In recent years, however, SRS has become ground zero for an important new mission. With the emergence of an unstable, post-Cold War world, political leaders have decided that nuclear proliferation has replaced Soviet domination as a vital threat to America's national security. So SRS scientists were asked to help. Rather than building the bombs that simultaneously defended civilization and threatened to end it, SRS was suddenly asked to dismantle and destroy some of the most dangerous materials in America's stockpile of weapons.

Many officials in Georgia-and some in South Carolina-have expressed concerns that the new work poses new contamination hazards. But residents of the immediate vicinity-who would benefit from 4,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 operational jobs-seem happy to pitch in, says Robert Botsch, a political scientist and pollster at the nearby University of South Carolina-Aiken. When Botsch was asked to gauge local opinion about the new mission, the views of a focus group he convened were so universally favorable that the group adjourned after 45 minutes rather than the scheduled two hours.

By now, SRS' role in the safe and secure disposal of surplus plutonium is well under way. But although almost everyone agrees with the goal of destroying surplus and outdated nuclear materials, making that goal a reality has proved to be time-consuming and difficult. To arrive at consensus on a method of plutonium disposition, officials in both the United States and Russia have had to navigate a minefield of technical and diplomatic issues. Even now, officials say, there's no guarantee that everything will go as scheduled.

On the one hand, environmental and antiproliferation activists in the United States argue vociferously against one idea that accounts for half of the disposition strategy: using plutonium from old warheads to manufacture fuel that can be used in civilian nuclear power plants. The critics say the plan not only poses risks of theft but also encourages other nations to begin mixing their civilian and military nuclear programs-a practice that the United States and other nuclear powers had long discouraged in the name of antiproliferation.

On the other hand, the activists' preferred method-immobilizing potentially reusable nuclear materials within a secure envelope of radioactive glass-doesn't pass muster with the Russians. They are widely believed to desire some economic gain, such as power generation, if they are to junk their stockpiles of plutonium. Some officials also suggest that Russian officials view the system-contrary to firm American denials-as preserving weapons-grade plutonium that can be mined later.

Federal officials, caught between the two sides' competing calls, struck a bilateral deal that uses both approaches. Under the deal, the United States is obligated to shoulder a large portion of the cost of Russia's plutonium-to-energy project. Because global security and U.S. taxpayers' money is at stake, negotiators constructed a checklist of benchmarks that need to be met before the two countries' programs finally begin getting rid of the excess plutonium in their stockpiles.

Despite the international tightrope walk, managers at SRS still need to begin planning now to construct buildings and hire experts, all for a two-decade-long program that might be delayed or derailed for any number of diplomatic, fiscal or environmental reasons. But despite the challenge, SRS officials say they are ready to get to work. "It's a risk," acknowledges Greg Rudy, an Energy Department official who serves as manager of the Savannah River Operations office. "But the risk of no action and no progress is even greater, for the United States, Russia and [the] world community."

'Post-Cold War Hangover'

Although some military strategists differ on exactly how much the American and Russian nuclear arsenals need to shrink in the coming years, a consensus exists that each country now possesses surplus materials-especially highly toxic metals such as plutonium-that no longer serve a useful military purpose but could, if stolen, be fashioned by rogue nations or terrorists into crude but devastating weapons. Concerns are particularly high where Russian plutonium is concerned, given the political upheaval and economic distress in the former Soviet Union.

Historically, the nuclear powers recycled plutonium from old weapons into new weapons or put it into secure storage to await the call back to duty. The notion of taking plutonium out of the weapons cycle entirely didn't exist until recently, experts say. But in the 1990s, major arms control agreements and changes to the nation's nuclear posture forced U.S. policy-makers and lawmakers to confront the question of what to do with America's and Russia's excess nuclear materials.

That's where the Energy Department's Office of Fissile Materials Disposition comes in. The office, which has grown in recent years to about three dozen staffers, "was created by a congressional push, but it was not resisted by the administration," says the office's director, Laura S.H. Holgate.

Holgate, who came to the job after working at the Pentagon for five years on international arms control issues, reported directly to the Energy Secretary until the department initiated its major reorganization this year. The reorganization reclassified Holgate's position as an assistant secretary post. She says that the fissile materials program was put on a fast track largely because of the seriousness of its mission.

"We are focused on dealing with the post-Cold War hangover," Holgate says. "There's a reduced need for vast amounts of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Now they have to be managed and ultimately transformed into something that makes it impossible to make them into new weapons."

From 1994 to 1997, Energy Department officials studied the technical and environmental issues surrounding fissile materials disposition. Ultimately, the department decided on a two-track system that included both immobilization and the fabrication of MOX, or mixed-oxide, fuel. Rudy, who held Holgate's position on an acting basis when DOE was deciding which techniques to use, says the department decided that using both systems allowed for redundancy in case of unforeseen problems.

The size of the stockpiles is substantial. In the mid-1990s, the United States declared 52 metric tons of plutonium to be surplus, a number that includes both excess warheads and excess plutonium that had never been installed in bombs. Not long after, Russian and U.S. negotiators agreed to get rid of about 34 metric tons of each side's stockpiles during the first round of disposition. It is this agreement that Presidents Clinton and Putin finalized in June. Of the roughly 34 metric tons of American plutonium, just over 9 metric tons is to be immobilized in glass, and another 25 metric tons is to become MOX fuel. The remaining 18 metric tons of U.S. plutonium would be processed under future agreements, if all goes as planned.

This surplus will be carried to SRS by secure convoys of trucks and trains, effectively consolidating the nation's plutonium supplies at one location. The flow will come from several sources, including decommissioned nuclear weapons stored at the Pantex Nuclear Plant in Texas. Other sources of plutonium include the Hanford nuclear complex in Washington state, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, and the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site in Colorado, which had already been sending material to SRS.

In winning the job, the SRS beat back several other nuclear facilities around the United States. "DOE had to make a choice on where would it consolidate, looking five to 15 years into the future," Rudy says. "The SRS made a lot of sense, given its history and infrastructure. The fundamental activity it had to have is consolidated, safe, verifiable storage until you can run the material through the disposition technologies."

Overall, the project, which got the Energy Department's official go-ahead earlier this year, is slated to cost $4 billion over 20 years, Holgate says. The new facilities at SRS are expected to be completed between 2006 and 2008. If no diplomatic snags arise with Russia, the facilities would be used for about a decade, then shut down around 2018 once the job is complete.

"It is a large, fairly complicated project," says Charlie Anderson, director of DOE's nuclear materials disposition division.

Out of Harm's Way

For officials concerned with nuclear proliferation, plutonium rings warning bells, because a small, easily concealable amount is all that's needed to enable the production of a deadly bomb. The challenge now being shouldered by SRS engineers is how to turn plutonium into a form that is of no use to potential terrorists.

The technique the United States has been using at Pantex for bomb-ready plutonium "pits"-secure storage-isn't good enough, officials say. "We could put our material into highly stabilized form and store it; there's no safety disadvantage to doing that," Anderson says. But American officials worry that Russia will do whatever the United States does, and they fear that simply stockpiling Russia's plutonium poses security risks. "The proliferation threat would be reduced with the other options we've taken," Anderson says.

So officials devised a strategy that they believe is technologically feasible for both countries, is not exorbitant in cost, is acceptable to political leaders in both countries and-most important-is as close to foolproof as is humanly possible.

To nuclear scientists, the MOX option was an obvious one. When plutonium is converted into mixed-oxide fuel-generally consisting of 4 percent plutonium and 96 percent low-enriched uranium-it can be used in conventional nuclear reactors to generate electricity. By undergoing this process, the MOX fuel is chemically changed; the waste products are essentially of no use to bomb-makers.

The other technique, immobilization, is in some ways more creative. First, plutonium is blended with a ceramic material. Then, engineers place this plutonium-ceramic mix into heavy canisters and drown it in molten glass. The kicker is that the molten glass is radioactive because it includes waste sludge that SRS was already getting rid of.

Even if potential plutonium burglars got their hands on the buried canisters of immobilized plutonium, they would almost certainly suffer extreme illness, and possibly death, from radiation as they tried to cut through the thick layers of glass and metal. "If a terrorist steals this, he'll wish he'd stolen the spent MOX fuel instead," says Clyde R. Ward, an advisory robotics engineer who is working on the immobilization effort for SRS contractor Westinghouse.

Each incoming shipment of surplus plutonium is secured en route within multiple layers of radiation-shielded containers. Some shipments have already arrived at SRS; they are being placed in an interim storage facility on site until a new pit disassembly and conversion facility is built. DOE plans to build that disassembly facility between 2002 and 2005, with operations beginning in 2006. Two adjoining facilities-one handling MOX fabrication and the other immobilization-are scheduled to be built at the same time.

Generally, the purer bits of plutonium will be converted into powdered plutonium oxide and turned over to the MOX reactors. The less pure portions, by contrast, will be immobilized, although SRS official Anderson says, "We can shift a bit if needed." The engineering challenges to making these techniques work are not insurmountable, he adds. "Pit disassembly and conversion has been conducted in different lab environments," Anderson says. "We're taking those steps and placing them into a production mode."

The plutonium will be handled in the Defense Waste Processing Facility-a monstrous structure that includes a building-within-a-building known as "the canyon." The cement structure with 4-foot-thick walls is designed to contain radioactivity. Technicians remotely operate machinery in the canyon from secure booths outside.

The building's airflow and electrical wiring are designed to prevent the leakage of radioactivity and toxic chemicals. In fact, although windows are located only 16 feet away from the radioactive canisters, they contain 10 panes of leaded glass, separated from one another by a layer of transparent oil. "There's actually less radiation standing behind the window than there is in background radiation outside," says SRS spokesman Richard Ford.

Fueling the MOX Debate

The MOX fuel plan inspires confidence among America's nuclear industry. But the United States needs to build a substantial amount of infrastructure before launching the program.

Following an open bidding process, DOE approved contracts with Cogema, a French MOX-fuel manufacturer, and Duke Power, a utility in the southeastern United States. At SRS, a new facility will be built to mix the plutonium from bombs with uranium, thus turning it into generator-ready MOX fuel. Duke Power will then use the fuel at nuclear reactors-two in Huntersville, N.C., and two in York, S.C. Two reactors in Mineral, Va., had been scheduled to use MOX as well, until Virginia Power, the reactors' owner, pulled out in April, saying it was "purely a business decision." The waste from those reactors, known as spent fuel, will be sent to a geologic repository in a form that is essentially useless to bomb-makers.

The MOX portion of the plutonium disposal project is clearly the most controversial, having become a rallying cry for more general opposition to a continued nuclear role at SRS. "We are concerned that DOE's decision will result in more nuclear material being transported through Georgia and more contamination at SRS," Jim Setser, head of the radiation protection branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year. "We would like to see the Department of Energy clean up the radioactive contamination that's already at SRS."

Critics of federal subsidies also are attacking the program, noting that the federal Treasury will foot much of the cost of making the reactors MOX-fuel ready and that the fuel will be provided free to the cooperating utilities. In two decades, these critics contend, there may well be enough jobs involved that the utilities will be able to lobby forcefully for the program's permanent continuation.

Another concern is that terrorists en route to the off-site reactors could hijack the MOX fuel. If that happens, some critics contend, bomb-makers might be able to extract usable weapons-grade plutonium. But the biggest concern by far is that the MOX project could hurt anti-proliferation efforts.

The ironies surrounding this issue are obvious. The activists most opposed to the project are those who also pushed hardest for disarmament, even though the MOX program helps get rid of the very nuclear swords that these groups have long been trying to turn into plowshares. The critics, for their part, point out an equal and opposite irony-that DOE is pursuing nonproliferation goals through a technology that may actually increase proliferation risks.

Ironies aside, the critics argue that the U.S. decision to use MOX fuel could demonstrate MOX's economic viability as a power generator, thus encouraging other nations to experiment with plutonium-based nuclear power. This, they fear, poses safety risks. The Nuclear Control Institute, a nonprofit group that has been critical of the MOX program, predicts that 25 percent more people would die of cancer if a severe reactor accident occured with MOX fuel, compared with the number who would die in an accident caused by conventional uranium fuel. The risks in less regulated countries, such as Russia, could prove to be even higher, the group argues. Although DOE disputes the institute's assertion, it does acknowledge a small potential for added health risks from accidents with MOX fuel.

The institute also takes exception to the notion that MOX-based reactors are a well-established technology. "Contrary to the claims of DOE and the consortium undertaking this work, the technology has not been used commercially," says Nuclear Control Institute research director Steven Dolley. "The decades of experience in Europe that they're talking about concern MOX made from plutonium recovered from spent civilian fuel, which has different isotopes and behaves differently. Exactly how it behaves has not been explored yet."

Moreover, the critics say that the advent of a U.S. MOX program could create a new market for plutonium, thus encouraging its transport around the world, where terrorists might steal it. And the U.S. decision to go forward with the MOX project effectively tears down the wall between military and civilian nuclear efforts-a wall that U.S. officials fought for decades to preserve. "This breaks with that precedent at a particularly unfortunate time, when the plutonium industry around the world is on the ropes," Dolley says.

Despite the criticism, Energy Department officials remain steadfast in their support for the program. Anderson answers the transportation concerns by pointing out the federal government's long record of safety and security in moving nuclear weapons parts around the country. "It's not like a standard trucking operation," he says. "If the weather gets in the way, we don't travel. If there is a threat, we have safe havens we can go to. Unfortunately, we can't get that story out because it's classified."

As for the dangers of hijacking MOX fuel, John W. Poston Sr., a nuclear engineer at Texas A&M University, says they are far overblown. "It's a figment of someone's very active imagination," Poston says. "Recovering the plutonium from the unirradiated MOX fuel is a highly technical process that can't necessarily be done in a barn or at a bootlegger's still or with a child's chemistry set. The scale on which such an endeavor would have to be undertaken is so large that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceal it."

Holgate acknowledges her critics' concerns but adds with a degree of comfort that "the controversy tends to surround the technology, not the mission. Almost everyone is in agreement that we have more plutonium than we need to support our national-security programs and that we have to dispose of the surplus appropriately."

Building Trust

In some ways, the plutonium disposition challenges mirror those already experienced by other major government programs. For instance, obtaining year-to-year funding from Congress has proved to be a familiar challenge, Anderson says. "A lot of DOE programs have a similar time frame," Holgate adds. "A lot of programs have the potential for public opposition and lawsuits."

What's unusual about the plutonium disposition program is Russia's major role in determining the timing of what takes place at SRS. Despite a significant rise in trust between the two nations since the end of the Cold War, Russia's prospects for stockpile stewardship consistently worry U.S. officials, far more so than the fate of the United States' own decommissioned weapons.

"In Russia, there are certainly risks, both advertent and inadvertent, in security techniques and in the sustainability of resources for their programs," Holgate says. "The best thing that we can do is try to create incentives and agreements to transform plutonium into a form that is not usable in weapons."

Despite domestic criticism of the MOX system, U.S. officials are pleased to have gotten Russia to agree to the proposal at all, since Russian officials had initially preferred options considered even more dangerous by Western leaders, including long-term storage of plutonium pits until they could be used in advanced breeder reactors.

"They're not wild about MOX because objectively it's not the most efficient way to get energy out of plutonium," Holgate says. "The Russians would like to get the most value out of it that they can." Texas A&M professor Poston says the Russian viewpoint inspires sympathy among nuclear scientists elsewhere as well. "I believe that most scientists and engineers in the field-outside of federal influence-would agree with the Russians that it is better to get some use out of the plutonium," he says.

Those opposed to the MOX program counter that the United States could have brokered a better deal. "If there is to be any disposition in Russia, the United States will have to pay, and if so, we should have been in a position to call the shots," Dolley says. "I don't think the U.S. really used that leverage. [U.S. officials] kept coming back from meetings saying that their hands were tied, but then when you ask them if they pushed it hard, they start equivocating."

Either way, the United States and Russia are now in general agreement about the bilateral program, leaving officials at the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry to hammer out the specifics. The idea is to set up a progression of benchmarks that must be met before either side takes a step forward.

The United States has pledged $400 million to support the plutonium disposition infrastructure in Russia between 1999 and 2004. That figure is expected to rise significantly thereafter. "That's probably less than a quarter of what's needed," Holgate says. "So we have to work multilaterally with the G-8 nations and others to contribute, with the logic that it's all in their national security interests. We're not quite there yet, but we're making progress."

In the meantime, construction at SRS will not begin until Russia is ready to build its facilities, officials say. Funding, too, could be held up if Russia displays a lack of progress. "Theoretically, work could stop entirely if they don't follow through," Anderson says. "We're not going to get rid of any of ours till they're ready to get rid of theirs."

That kind of uncertainty poses challenges to SRS officials, who must proceed with planning well in advance and act under the assumption that a program will take place-even though it could be delayed for any number of reasons. The pullout of Virginia Power in April, for instance, threw an unexpected wrench into the plans; DOE officials told reporters that they were considering finding another utility or increasing the role of Duke Power to pick up the slack.

Despite the setbacks, the progress made by the United States and Russia during the mid-1990s on an agreement to dispose of highly enriched uranium gives DOE officials hope that the plutonium project will proceed with similar dispatch. Officials are confident that the discrete phases built into the program provide numerous points at which stopping will cause only limited harm to the program as a whole.

Anderson says it is unlikely that the infrastructure at SRS might be assembled without the program ever going forward. His colleague Jimmy Angelos, Westinghouse's program manager for plutonium disposition, agrees. "Both governments have been driving for some time to reduce weapons," Angelos says. "These projects are an outcrop of that desire, and there's a movement afoot to be successful at it and to make it work both here and in Russia."

Louis Jacobson has written about weapons of mass destruction for Government Executive,The Economist and National Journal, where he is a staff correspondent.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec