State of Nevada Comments, DOE Fissile Materials EIS

State of Nevada Comments on the U.S. Department of Energy's Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials

Submitted June 7, 1996


The following comments focus on national issues relevant to the storage and disposition of fissile materials (i.e., plutonium) as well as on local issues pertinent to the Nevada Test Site. The comments conclude with a summary of national and local issues.






Over the past six years, State of Nevada officials have consistently and deliberately participated in the review of Department of Energy (DOE) plans and programs concerning the management and disposition of DOE-controlled radioactive waste and fissile materials. We have offered substantive comments on a variety of proposed actions including the Notices of Intents (NOIs) for the now defunct Reconfiguration PEIS and the "active" Pantex EIS, as well as lengthy comments on the Idaho Spent Fuel PEIS, the Environmental Management PEIS, the PEIS for Stockpile Stewardship, and the NTS Site-Wide EIS. In all of these comments, we have consistently tried to embrace a national perspective while acknowledging that DOE must address local issues and concerns in order to achieve workable decisions concerning the long-term management and disposition of nuclear wastes and fissile materials.

In previous comments, we have stated that the federal government must first develop a preferred alternative for the permanent disposition of special nuclear materials like plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), before selecting sites for interim or long-term storage. Specifically, we stated that "DOE should link long-term materials consolidation and management with options for final materials disposition." footnote 1

In reference to surplus plutonium, we concur with the National Academy of Sciences' finding that disposition options for this long-lived material will take decades to carry out. Therefore, we believe that to reduce the risks of fissile material proliferation, a major policy concern for the country and the world, DOE must link plutonium storage and disposition functions at as few federal sites as possible. Taking such action would reduce the overall risks to public health and the environment. Linking plutonium storage and disposition functions would also diminish the socioeconomic impacts caused by risk and stigma issues typically associated with transporting nuclear materials and radioactive waste on public highways.

Given our recent participation in numerous briefings and meetings with Department officials, however, we believe that DOE will not seriously consider linking surplus plutonium storage with materials disposition. In essence, this means that DOE will likely segregate the decision process for long-term (50 year) plutonium storage from the nine separate plutonium materials disposition alternatives evaluated in the Storage and Disposition PEIS. Unfortunately, adopting such a strategy will result in the federal transportation of plutonium-bearing materials through cities and communities throughout the country. We contend that such a campaign will not be acceptable to the public.

For example, if DOE selects the "No Action Alternative" for long-term storage of surplus plutonium at the six existing DOE sites footnote 2 assessed in the PEIS and then decides to adopt a plutonium disposition strategy such as Immobilization footnote 3 and Reactor Burn, footnote 4 surplus plutonium-bearing materials will be continuously transported for many years between several DOE sites. While DOE's risk analyses for the routine transportation of radioactive waste and fissile materials always seem to demonstrate little or no impact in terms of accident fatalities and latent cancer deaths, these analyses routinely fail to address the perceived risk issues which inevitably will result from these transportation activities.

Risk Perception

Large scale shipments of plutonium-bearing materials along the nation's highways and rail lines, especially through large urban areas, will cause significant adverse socioeconomic and cultural impacts even if no accidents occur. Typically these impacts will manifest as negative stigmatizing socioeconomic effects. Research footnote 5 has demonstrated that nuclear-related activities such as radioactive material transportation have the potential to result in significant socioeconomic impacts. These impacts originate in intense negative perceptions and avoidance behaviors by the public. Public and media interest in "things nuclear" makes it almost certain that these negative perceptions will adversely affect a community's quality of life and subsequently its commercial, residential, and business investment opportunities.

There is also considerable uncertainty about the federal government's ability to safely manage radioactive materials, and because of this, the public has developed a very strong aversion to "things nuclear." Given this legacy, along with the inevitability of associated negative risk perceptions caused by the transportation of nuclear materials, we are disappointed that this Draft PEIS fails to address risk perceptions issues and their relationship to potential negative socioeconomic impacts as part of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) impact analysis process.

Accordingly, if DOE adopts a proposed action and implements a Record of Decision that results in a fragmented approach between the management of long-term plutonium storage and a final disposition strategy, then the Department should be prepared for widespread public controversy and litigation leading to additional and costly NEPA documentation. Such action, of course, will be driven by the public's aversion to the "excessive" transportation of plutonium-bearing materials on the nation's highways. And any accidents or incidents that occur during the shipping campaigns will only serve to exacerbate the situation.

Cumulative Impacts

If plutonium storage and disposition are not consolidated at one or more federal sites, DOE's decision process could result in a deficient analysis of cumulative impacts to the human and natural environments. This situation could intensify as other "programmatic," department-wide NEPA decisions are made that cover the treatment, storage, and disposal of other waste forms footnote 6 at the same sites selected for long-term plutonium storage and disposition.

As DOE is aware, decisions concerning materials storage and disposition will play a key role in determining the potential cumulative environmental impacts and radiological human health risks at the federal sites selected for such activities. How DOE chooses to address the timing of these decisions in relationship to other department-wide programmatic NEPA decisions that pose similar risks is not at all clear. If political interests supersede environmental and radiological human health concerns in this uncertain decision process, then again we contend that such decisions will likely not be acceptable to the public.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

State officials also believe that a cost-benefit analysis should be developed to support a programmatic decision concerning which technology is eventually used for plutonium disposition. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to balance the environmental costs of a proposed action against the action's economic and technological benefits (See 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(B)). According to the regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality concerning cost-benefit, "an environmental impact statement should at least indicate those considerations, including factors not related to environmental quality [cost-benefit], which are likely to be relevant and important to a decision." (See CEQ CFR Part 1502.23) Selecting a disposition option(s) for surplus plutonium is clearly a major programmatic decision that will have significant cost implications.

According to the analysis of socioeconomic "benefits" presented in the PEIS, it is clear that the Reactor Burn Alternative along with the need for developing a MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel fabrication facility will generate the greatest economic impact when compared to the other disposition alternatives under consideration. Yet, without a general assessment of comparative life-cycle costs for the various disposition technologies, the public is unable to determine the long-term costs/benefits of selecting one alternative over another. Because the Reactor Burn Alternative could have significantly different life-cycle costs impacts in comparison to the other disposition technologies, the Final PEIS should at least contain an informal cost-benefit analysis. The Final PEIS should also discuss the relationship between the cost-benefit analysis of the various disposition technologies and any unquantified environmental effects such as reactor decommissioning, the generation and disposal of mixed, low-level, and solid wastes, etc.

Under the current Administration's guidance, DOE has initiated several "openness initiatives" aimed at both expanding and soliciting public participation in the Department's decision making process. DOE has also demonstrated a certain sensitivity toward assessing the costs associated with other major programmatic decisions footnote 7 involving the production of nuclear materials and/or disposition of nuclear waste. However, these analyses were specifically excluded from the formal NEPA documentation process and were generally reserved for internal use to support DOE's NEPA decision making process. While justification for excluding a cost-benefit analysis for these other actions remains questionable, because of the high cost associated with the Reactor Burn Alternative, there is a clear and obvious need to provide a general analysis of costs and benefits of the nine disposition alternatives presented in this Draft PEIS.

In a related matter, State officials do acknowledge that a decision to adopt the plutonium burn option using any of the reactor alternatives will have certain national and international policy implications. On one hand, agreeing to participate in the "Plutonium Fuel Cycle" -- albeit limited to defense related purposes -- presents an obvious conflict with U.S. policies that support the non-proliferation of special nuclear materials. footnote 8 Alternatively, by not choosing the plutonium burn-up option, the U.S. could undermine certain international objectives aimed at reducing the stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium held by Russia and other nuclear countries. In any event, while these national and international policy considerations cannot be ignored, neither can the selection of a plutonium disposition option that will "bust the budget," given other DOE program priorities that must compete in a time of no-growth budget cycles for the foreseeable future.

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On page S-20 of the PEIS, as well as in other sections of the document, it is stated that certain alternatives, such as consolidation of Highly-Enriched Uranium along with an estimated 38 tons of weapons-grade plutonium at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), would be "inconsistent with the NTS withdrawal." As you know, in comments on the NOI for this PEIS, we suggested that certain institutional constraints that directly affect the Nevada Test Site should be analyzed if the NTS were to be considered for any major projects such as long-term storage and/or disposition of fissile materials. Specifically, we stated that "DOE must resolve certain administrative constraints that limit uses of the NTS [and that] such restraints are contained in the Public Land Orders that authorized the land withdrawal for the site." We are pleased that DOE has finally acknowledged that stipulated facility-use restrictions are contained in the Public Land Orders for the NTS withdrawal.

Public Land Orders

Because it appears that NTS will probably not be selected as a preferred alternative for either long-term storage or fissile materials disposition, we have purposely forgone a detailed review of the environmental impacts presented in the draft PEIS. However, if the final PEIS includes any proposed actions for the NTS, DOE must acknowledge that the Public Land Orders footnote 9 for the NTS do in fact limit the use of the site to weapons testing and related research and development facilities only. When the Nevada Legislature ceded its jurisdiction to the public lands that now comprise the NTS, it did so on the basis of these stipulated uses. And, although many believe the lands comprising the NTS are federal lands, they are in fact public lands that have been withdrawn for a specific national defense purpose, and that purpose does not include long-term storage of fissile materials, nor development of any major disposition technologies such as plutonium immobilization and/or MOX fuel fabrication and reactor burn-up of fissile materials.

If, in the unlikely event that DOE selects the NTS for one or more of these activities, then the Department must propose a path forward in the Final PEIS and Record of Decision that specifically addresses actions concerning altering the mission of the NTS. Formally altering that mission, moreover, must include a process for seeking approval from the Nevada Legislature to use the site for purposes other than nuclear testing.

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As mentioned above, we are providing a list of specific summary comments that cover both national and local issues of concern. We would appreciate DOE's careful review of these comments and their consideration during preparation of the Final PEIS for storage and disposition of fissile materials.


These comments were jointly prepared by John B. Walker, State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects and Julie Butler, Department of Administration. The comments were sent to J. David Nulton, Director, NEPA Compliance & Outreach, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Fissile Materials Disposition. Copies of the comments were sent to the following individuals:


Governor Bob Miller
Nevada Congressional Delegation
Perry Comeaux, Dept. of Administration
Robert R. Loux, NWPO
Harry Swainston, Deputy Attorney General
Lew Dodgion, Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
Affected State Agencies
Leo Penne, State of Nevada, Washington Office

John Thomasian, NGA
Terry Vaeth, Joseph Fiore, Don Elle, DOE/NV
Carol M. Borgstrom DOE-HQ\NEPA
Ann Morgan, State Director, BLM


  1. Letter dated October 29, 1993 from Robert R. Loux, State of Nevada, to Mr. Howard Canter, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Weapons Complex Reconfiguration.

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  2. Hanford, WA; Los Alamos, NM; Rocky Flats, CO; Pantex, TX; Savannah, SC; and INEL, Idaho.

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  3. Two primary immobilization technologies include vitrification (i.e., into glass) and ceramic immobilization. Vitrification is the technology of choice for treatment of the estimated 100 million gallons of defense high-level waste in storage at DOE's Hanford and Savannah River sites.

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  4. Reactor burn refers to "burning" surplus plutonium in one or more nuclear reactors. To achieve this, surplus plutonium must be converted into fresh fuel for use in one or more U.S. reactors or in one of the CANDU reactors owned and operated by the Canadian government. Using weapons-grade plutonium, primarily from DOE's Pantex plant in Texas, DOE would process or convert plutonium 'pits' into fresh fuel at a new Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility to be located at one of the six DOE sites evaluated in the PEIS. This fresh fuel would in turn be burned at an existing commercial reactor, the Canadian CANDU reactors at the Bruce Power Station, or a newly constructed (or acquired) DOE reactor.

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  5. State of Nevada, Nuclear Waste Project Office. Publication numbers NWPO-SE 022-89; 056-93; and 063-95.

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  6. Civilian and defense spent reactor fuel, mixed waste, low-level waste, special-case waste, etc.

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  7. See U.S. Department of Energy, 1995. Technical Reference Report for Tritium Supply and Recycling, DOE/DP-0134, and U.S. Department of Energy, 1996, Analysis of Stockpile Management Alternatives, February 1996, Albuquerque Operations Office.

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  8. Although reactor-based plutonium burn-up technologies will bind weapons-grade plutonium in a form that meets the Spent Fuel Standard, such technologies will not eliminate all of the plutonium isotopes, and a significant amount of plutonium will remain in a form that still requires final disposition.

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  9. Public Land Orders 805, 1662, 2568 and 3579. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 1984. Continuation of Withdrawals, Department of Energy, Nevada Test Site 4310-84. (This file is located at the BLM State Office in Reno, Nevada.

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