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Plan For Plutonium Disposal Panned

by Jessica Morrison
January 18, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 3

Credit: DOE
Tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons could end up at WIPP.
Photo shows the entrance to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
Credit: DOE
Tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons could end up at WIPP.

Although the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is still shuttered from a radiation leak in February 2014, the Department of Energy is considering a recommendation to bury 34 metric tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons there. But a top U.S. nuclear scientist and policy expert and his colleagues areurging DOE to reconsider (Nature 2016, DOI: 10.1038/529149a). Rodney C. Ewing of Stanford University and collaborators question the safety record of WIPP and suggest that DOE consider “how difficult it is to predict potential failures of such a disposal system over millennia” before moving forward with disposal at the facility. An agreement between the U.S. and Russia calls for each country to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium from their respective nuclear weapon programs. Until last year, DOE was expected to move forward with a plan to convert the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel that can be used in reactors. But a task force commissioned by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in June 2015 recommended disposal at WIPP as a cost-saving alternative.


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