An Excellent Defense of U-233 Preservation

A number of people are writing to their elected officials and others, asking them to preserve the precious U-233 inventory of the United States from permanent destruction at an absurd cost of $477 million dollars.

This letter will be sent to Secretary Chu by one of our regular commenters “arcs_n_sparks”, who addressed some specific concerns of the DOE based on his own experience. This letter is reproduced with permission:

Dr. Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy
S?1/Forrestal Building
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20585

Reference: U?233 Downblending and Disposition

Dear Secretary Chu,

I urge the Department of Energy to reconsider the proposed downblending of U-233. This is a valuable nuclear material, derived at no small expense by the country, and would prove quite invaluable to a future fleet of thorium?based reactors. Additionally, the proposed cost of disposition (nearly 1/2 billion dollars) is something we can little afford in our current budget situation.

In reading the final Environmental Assessment on this topic, the DOE articulated the following statement of need:

NEED FOR THE PROPOSED ACTION: DOE action is needed to: (1) satisfy the requirements of DNFSB Recommendation 97-1; (2) address safeguards and security requirements, (3) eliminate long-term worker safety and criticality concerns; and (4) provide for final disposal of the U-233 inventory.

1. Certainly, meeting the recommendations of 97-1 is important. Nothing in the DNFSB recommendations exclusively drives one to downblend. In fact, the word does not appear anywhere in 97-1.

2. Having been directly involved in SNM protection for the DOE, I can appreciate the concern regarding safeguards and security requirements at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) B3019. However, there are several other sites that can adequately protect this material with no (or minor) additional cost to NA-70. A site prepares a revised Vulnerability Assessment and updated Site Safeguards and Security Plan. For a number of sites, this is already performed on an annual basis. For those sites incurring the security costs of CAT I SNM protection, this is a very modest amount of SNM to add into their mix.

3. Since any movement of U?233 will require processing and repackaging (even for a downblending operation), downblending is not an exclusive remedy for meeting this requirement. The deinventory experience at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a model of processing and repackaging material in a manner to ensure increased worker safety and criticality control.

4. While downblending accomplishes this disposition objective, it borders on “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The country has expended significant effort to acquire this valuable material, and is now proposing spending nearly 1/2 billion dollars getting rid of it. There are less costly alternatives that preserve the value of this material for the country.

In dismissing alternatives in the EA, the DOE determined the alternatives: “not to be reasonable as they fail to fully address the DOE purpose and need.” This
included the development and testing of a thorium fuel cycle.

As you know, the thorium fuel cycle, originally developed as the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at ORNL over 40 years ago, has substantial safety, non-proliferation, fuel utilization, and waste management advantages. Unfortunately, at that time, it did not support the growing nuclear weapon material production needs of the country or the light water reactor approach embraced by the nuclear Navy. We, as a country, need to revisit that decision in light of today’s realities, which include reducing the dependency on, and the dangerous byproducts of, fossil fuel utilization.

If providing safe, reliable, affordable, and clean energy is not within the “purpose and need” of the Department of Energy, then I respectfully suggest a serious reconsideration of what the DOE mission and vision is for the country.

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