December 9, 1996

Chris Kielich, Jeff Sherwood, 202/586-5806

Energy Secretary Unveils Strategies to Reduce Global Nuclear Danger

Post-Cold War Plans for Plutonium Disposal, Weapons Dismantlement and Solar Energy at Nevada Test Site Announced

The Department of Energy (DOE) today laid out a dual-track strategy to irreversibly dispose of the nation's surplus plutonium and to reduce from seven to three the number of sites where nuclear weapons materials are stored. DOE also will enhance the safety of weapons dismantlement at its Pantex Plant in Texas and diversify the Nevada Test Site for civilian uses, including a major solar energy project, while maintaining its nuclear test readiness activities.

"Today's actions will reduce global nuclear danger. For five decades, the United States built up a huge stockpile of plutonium the deadly stuff of nuclear weapons. Today, we begin to destroy it. We have a clear message to the world: we are committed to irreversible nuclear reductions and we will ensure that surplus plutonium is never again used for nuclear weapons," Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O'Leary said.

A significant challenge arising from the end of the Cold War is the need for safe, secure and verifiable management of weapons-usable highly enriched uranium and plutonium from the disassembly of nuclear weapons. Global stockpiles of these materials pose a danger to national and international security if they are not managed and disposed of in a manner that precludes their reuse in weapons. As described in the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Environmental Impact Statement announced today, DOE's strategy for managing these materials is to reduce the number of locations where they are stored and to pursue a dual-track plutonium disposition strategy that allows for immobilizing plutonium in glass or ceramic forms and burning plutonium as mixed oxide fuel in existing reactors.

Both disposition approaches ensure that the plutonium cannot be used for weapons and preserve the long-standing U.S. policy of not using civilian reactors to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Under the U.S. approach, plutonium in nuclear reactors in the form of MOX fuel would not be reprocessed to recover plutonium. This contrasts with the approach used by some other nations.

Technical, institutional and cost uncertainties exist with both the immobilization and reactor options. Accordingly, the department, over the next two years, will complete the necessary tests, process development, technology demonstrations, site-specific environmental reviews and detailed cost proposals for both approaches. Final decisions to use either or both of these technologies depend on the results of this work as well as nonproliferation considerations and progress in efforts and negotiations with Russia and other nations. This approach gives thePresident the flexibility to begin plutonium disposition either multilaterally or bilaterally through negotiations or unilaterally as an example to Russia and other nations.

Supporting actions needed to implement the approaches include: constructing a plutonium vitrification or ceramic immobilization facility at either the Hanford site in Washington or Savannah River Site in South Carolina or modifying and using the already operating Defense Waste Processing Facility at Savannah River; constructing a pit disassembly/conversion facility at Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Pantex or Savannah River Site; and constructing a government-owned, mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility at Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Pantex, or Savannah River Site. Decisions regarding these actions would be made by early 1998.

Under DOE's preferred storage strategy, Pantex and Los Alamos National Laboratory would store strategic reserve plutonium indefinitely, and Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee would store strategic reserve highly enriched uranium (HEU), along with surplus HEU pending disposition. Three sites Hanford, Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and Savannah River Site would store surplus plutonium until its disposition. Plutonium, in the form of pits (nuclear weapons cores), would move from Rocky Flats to Pantex, and Rocky Flats' separated and stabilized plutonium materials would be relocated to the Savannah River Site. Non-pit plutonium would be stored at the Savannah River Site in an expansion of the planned new Actinide Packaging and Storage Facility, pending disposition. Ultimately, immobilized plutonium or spent reactor fuel would be disposed in a geologic repository.

The second review announced today is the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Continued Operations of the Pantex Plant and Associated Storage of Nuclear Weapons Components. Pantex, located near Amarillo, Texas, is the nation's only facility for the disassembly of nuclear weapons. Its current mission is centered on the dismantlement of nuclear weapons and maintenance and surveillance of the smaller nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Pantex Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) proposes to maintain the plant's current weapons dismantlement mission and to increase the capability for on-site interim storage of plutonium components from 12,000 to 20,000 pits. DOE would implement safety upgrades to improve these operations, for example changing air flight patterns over the plant and improving seals inside buildings to minimize plutonium dispersal in the event of a high-explosive accident. Interim storage activities would continue at Pantex until decisions regarding long-term storage and disposition are made and implemented.

DOE anticipates that Pantex will downsize as weapon dismantlement work decreases over the next 10 years to the level projected in the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic EIS released in November.

The Record of Decision on the Nevada Test Site signed today diversifies operations at the Site. Defense activities include science-based stockpile stewardship experiments and operations to maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile, including "subcritical" experiments involving nuclear materials. These experiments are consistent with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. DOE will establish a "transparency" approach to ensure the experiments are understood by the public and the international community. Non-defense uses of the site include a solar energy project, hazardous materials spill testing and a technology development program. The Department, in conjunction with the Corporation for Solar Technology and Renewable Resources, expects to construct and operate an up-to-100 megawattsolar power production facility. Once built, this would be one of the world's largest solar energy projects.

Copies of the Final EIS on Fissile Materials are located in DOE reading rooms or can be requested by calling 1-800-820-5156 or writing to the Department of Energy, Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, P.O. Box 23786, Washington, D.C. 20026-3786. The summary is available on the Internet at the following address:

Copies of the Final EIS on the Pantex Plant are located in DOE reading rooms or can be requested by calling 505/845-4351 or writing to Ms. Nanette Founds, U.S. Department of Energy, Albuquerque Operations Office, P.O. Box 5400, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87185-5400.

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