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Expert: US Plan for Uranium-233 Disposal "Shocking"

Report warns against plan to simply bury weapons-grade nuclear material 'straight into the ground'

- Common Dreams staff

Uranium 233, a man-made substitute for natural uranium that was produced mostly in the 1960's and 70's to provide fuel for the nation's nascent nuclear energy program, turned out to be a highly expensive material with almost no practical application.

Some of the nation’s uranium 233 was produced at the Indian Point 1 reactor in New York, shown under construction in 1959. (Consolidated Edison Company of New York via NYT) Now, nearly fifty years and many billions of dollars later, the question before the US Department of Energy is how to safely neutralize and store the many thousands of pounds of it that remain in government facilities.

A report in Monday's New York Times, explains that the government's plan

is to take the uranium made at Indian Point, now stored in 403 stainless steel tubes at a plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and bury the containers at a low-level waste dump that consists of trenches that are up to 40 feet deep at the Nevada National Security Site, where nuclear weapons were tested until 1992.

Workers will dig narrow “slit trenches” at the bottom of the standard ones, descending another 8 to 10 feet.

But Robert Alverez, a nuclear expert and senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, argues that this plan is a gross mistake, and only builds on previous blunders made by the US Department of Energy when it comes to decisions about uranium 233.

To bury the material—which Alvarez characterizes as one of the "most dangerous materials on the planet"—in what amounts to a "landfill," he says, would show blatant disregrard "for international safeguard and security norms as well as the department’s own nuclear security and radioactive waste disposal standards."

"Instead of setting an example," Alvarez continues, "the U.S. government is establishing a bad precedent for the rest of the world in protecting public safety and security from concentrated fissile materials."

"Our nuclear facilities may have done a poor job of keeping track of this dangerous material. Now, the Department of Energy has indicated it plans to waive safety requirements to dispose of it. But if the U.S. government makes a mess, they should clean it up."

According to a report (pdf) authored by Alvarez last month, the last remaining stockpile of uranium-233, "should be properly accounted for, safely secured, and diluted for proper disposal, never to fuel nuclear weapons in the future."

As the NYT concludes, the costs of such efforts were not available, but so far "the Energy Department has rejected the additional expense as unnecessary."

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