Nuclear Control Institute


Comments of the Nuclear Control Institute for the
Department of Energy's Scoping Process on the
Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Accomplishing
Expanded Civilian Nuclear Energy Research and Development and
Isotope Mission in the United StatesIncluding the Role of the Fast Flux Test Facility

October 29, 1999

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a non-profit research center working to halt proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, hereby submits the following comments for the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) scoping process on restart of the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF).

NCI supports the goal of reliable production of adequate quantities of medical isotopes to meet the country's needs, via the use of non-weapons-usable fuel and target materials. We therefore find questionable the Department of Energy's proposal to use a 400 MW sodium-cooled breeder reactor fueled with both plutonium and highly-enriched uranium to produce such isotope. Given that much smaller water-cooled reactors fueled with materials which do not present proliferation risks are more appropriate for isotope production we are opposed to the proposal put forward for FFTF. As FFTF has been without a clear mission since the early 1980s, the proposal to now produce medical isotopes appears disingenuous. The PEIS which is now being conducted is not the best way to help identify and meet the nation's medical isotope needs but rather is being used as a way to keep an unneeded breeder reactor in operation.

As NCI's work is focused on nuclear non-proliferation issues, we will focus on two major concerns related to the proposed restart of the FFTF located at the Department of Energy's Hanford site:

1)  FFTF is a plutonium breeder reactor and its continued operation will undermine both the efforts of the United States and the international community to halt the spread of weapons-usable plutonium.

2)  The proposed use in FFTF of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel imported from Germany and use of weapons-grade uranium — highly enriched uranium (HEU) — will jeopardize established and successful non-proliferation policies of the United States.

FFTF: Relic Plutonium Breeder Reactor

FFTF was originally built as a part of the Department of Energy's Clinch River Breeder Reactor (CRBR) program based at Oak Ridge. When the CRBR program was terminated in 1983 during the Reagan Administration any perceived justification for the reactor vanished though various uses of it were devised, such as testing of fuel for Japan's Monju breeder reactor. In spite of a lack of a mission for FFTF it continued in operation until 1992 and has since been kept in a standby mode without any mission whatsoever.

The fate of FFTF to this point is not dissimilar to other sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors (FBRs) around the world. The Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor Breeder program in the United States was terminated in 1994 and FBR programs in Germany and Britain have ended as the technological problems and expense associated with breeder operation have proved insurmountable. France has closed its large FBR, Superphoenix, and a smaller breeder, Phoenix, is due to soon close. Breeder programs limp along in Russia, India and Japan, though the near-catastrophic sodium leak in 1995 at Japan's Monju breeder has resulted in the indefinite closure of the reactor. In short, the breeder reactor is a reactor whose time has never come, whose promise has withered in the face of daunting technological and economic problems.

From a non-proliferation perspective it is good that breeder reactor programs around the world have been terminated or failed as breeders are the perfect machine for producing weapons-grade plutonium. The wisest choice from a non-proliferation perspective has been the path that the United States has finally chosen — to avoid development of this risky proliferation-prone technology. Yet, in spite of a policy not to pursue breeders the Department of Energy (DOE) is now engaged in a frantic search to find a new mission for FFTF, in part to keep the breeder "dream" alive.

Restart of FFTF could thus result in the de facto reversal of the earlier decision to halt research and development of breeder reactors. Although FFTF may be operated in a non-breeding mode, its operation will yield information helpful to breeder development and send the message to those countries still pursuing the breeder that such programs are acceptable. In July 1999, officials associated with the breeder program in both France and Japan expressed to DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC) their interest in the maintenance in this country of FFTF as a fast reactor research facility and indicated that FFTF could be used to carry out research in conjunction with their own Phoenix and Joyo reactor programs. (It must be noted that the September 30, 1999, criticality accident at the Tokai-mura site in Japan was caused by mishandling of uranium being used to fabricate fuel for the Joyo fast reactor.)

The PEIS as well as a separate non-proliferation assessment must address the proliferation implications of operating the FFTF breeder reactor. We find continued operation of FFTF unacceptable and call for its permanent closure and decommissioning.

Plutonium Fuel Import: Serious Policy Questions

The DOE has stated that MOX fuel which was fabricated for FFTF in the past could be used for years 1 through 6 of its operation. It has not been established that this fuel is in safe enough condition or of the right isotopic content to run the reactor for the myriad of missions which have been discussed. The PEIS process must thus include results of a thorough examination and analysis of this fuel in its present condition and how its use, from a physics perspective, relates to any proposed mission.

The PEIS must evaluate the conditions under which the fuel stored at Hanford was fabricated, including the quality control system which was in place when it was fabricated. All fabrication records must be examined in order to guarantee that quality control which would be used today for such fabrication was met at the time of its fabrication.

As proper mixing of the plutonium and uranium oxides is essential in MOX fuel, a thorough examination of all fuel assemblies and pellets must be carried out to insure that no off-spec pellets are considered for use and that current DOE regulations and standards pertaining to such things as pellet size and isotopic concentration are met by the fuel. Any change in the physical state of the pellets due to long-term storage in a radioactive environment must likewise be identified via non-destructive and destructive analysis.

If insurmountable problems with use of the existing MOX fuel are identified, DOE would likely want to develop a new MOX facility at Hanford or pursue the production of MOX pellets in the new facility now being considered for construction at Savannah River Site as part of the plutonium disposition program. Construction of a MOX plant dedicated solely for FFTF will lead to extremely high fuel costs and additional environmental problems. Given questions about adequate fuel supply for operation of FFTF, the environmental impacts of an FFTF-dedicated MOX plant must be included in the PEIS.

All environmental and licensing factors associated with an FFTF MOX production line at any SRS MOX facility must also be considered in the PEIS. To underscore the lack of agreement and coordination between FFTF promoters and the Office of Fissile Material Disposition, the EIS on surplus plutonium disposition has excluded FFTF from any plutonium disposition mission. Thus, the Office of Fissile Material Disposition has no plan to fabricate FFTF MOX and is not considering such a plan in the design of the MOX facility. Any change to the MOX facility being considered for the light-water reactor program will be costly and bring additional delays and environmental impacts to that program.

DOE has stated that it will acquire MOX fuel from Germany to operate FFTF in years 7 through 20. The fuel in question was fabricated for the SNR-300 breeder program but never irradiated. The SNR-300 reactor, owned by the German company SBK and constructed at the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Center, never operated and the program was terminated in 1991 after questions arose about both the safety of the reactor and financing for it. (The Karlsruhe site was sold in 1995 for development as a recreational theme park and it has been reported that the SNR-300 reactor itself will be used as a hotel and sports complex.)

Some of the SNR-300 fuel is stored in the Hanau plutonium storage facility as well as at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's reprocessing facility located at Dounreay, Scotland. It has been reported in the German media that Siemens, which fabricated some of the SNR-300 fuel at its now-closed MOX plant, wants to have those fuel elements and other plutonium materials removed from the storage facility by 2002. Thus, it appears that there are forces in Germany which are pushing for use of the fuel in FFTF for solely domestic reasons. As Germany must one day reckon with the growing mountain of plutonium accumulating due to continued reprocessing of German spent nuclear fuel, any shipment of the SNR-300 fuel to the United States will have slight impact on the plutonium disposition crisis facing Germany.

Additionally, some of the SNR-300 may also be stored at Belgonucleaire's plutonium site at Dessel, Belgium. The exact location of the fuel being discussed for importation into the United States thus must be clearly identified in the PEIS. The regulatory and environmental review role of the pertinent European government agencies as well as the role of the public in any decision to export the fuel or not must be clarified in both discussions between DOE and German authorities as well as the PEIS.

Decisions taken by the German or any other government to transport MOX fuel containing weapons-usable plutonium across Europe could well be controversial. Just three years ago, an attempt to export a sea shipment of SNR-300 fuel from Germany to Dounreay failed due to confrontational public protest and the material had to be placed back in storage at Hanau. Given the political sensitivity of plutonium shipments in Europe and the possibility that a shipment of SNR-300 might not take place in spite of formal agreement, the PEIS must include a detailed discussion of an alternative fuel source in the eventuality that the shipment does not proceed due either to licensing problems or public or political concerns in Germany.

As regulations in the United States prevent all commercial air shipment of plutonium either over or into the country, transport of plutonium fuel to Hanford can only be done via purpose-built ships and with armed naval escort, as established by policy. Environmental and security hazards along potential sea and land shipping routes as well as cask safety questions must be discussed in the PEIS.

Export of the SNR-300 fuel may also be controversial among politicians and the public in both Germany and those who reside in countries which are members of EURATOM given that FFTF is not under the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguard regime. Export to such a non-safeguarded facility may run counter to both domestic and EURATOM policy. Likewise, export to a facility not licensed by the domestic licensing authority in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, may run into regulatory and policy problems in Europe. The PEIS thus must include discussions of action necessary for DOE to bring the FFTF both under IAEA safeguards and NRC licensing oversight.

Little information is publicly known about the fabrication of the SNR-300 fuel. Evidently it was fabricated both at Belgonucleaire's MOX plant located at Dessel, Belgium as well as at the closed Siemens MOX plant. As is the case for the old FFTF fuel, the history of the MOX fuel considered for import must be reconstructed. Company records which establish details of fabrication, quality control, and inspection must be examined in order to determine the quality of the fuel in question and if it meets current DOE regulations and standards. Given questions about fabrication and aging of the fuel, the history and condition of each individual pellet must be established. DOE must independently establish the condition of the fuel and not rely on German authorities for this information.

Plans for refabrication of MOX pellets from SNR-300 fuel assemblies into FFTF assemblies must be fully discussed in the PEIS. DOE plans for testing of such assemblies manufactured from aging pellets must also be addressed. The facilities which will handle the SNR-300 assemblies, disassemble them, test the pellets, and manufacture new assemblies have not been identified. Such new production missions at Hanford or any other site will obviously bring environmental and economic impacts which must be analyzed. Disposal of German-origin wastes associated with remanufacture of FFTF assemblies not only brings questions about volumes and handling of waste streams but also policy questions concerning disposal of foreign-origin waste in the United States. Likewise, disposition of spent SNR-300 MOX fuel and its impact on any spent fuel repository must be discussed in the PEIS.

The origin of the plutonium in the SNR-300 fuel must be established. Evidently the fuel was fabricated from plutonium of both U.S.-origin and non-U.S.-origin. U.S.-origin plutonium resulting from the European reprocessing of irradiated U.S.-supplied uranium comprises part of the MOX and plutonium from other sources comprises the remainder. Importation into this country of both U.S.-origin foreign-owned plutonium stored overseas and non-U.S.-origin foreign-owned plutonium could not be done under any exisiting policy. Importation of such material would have such serious environmental and policy implications that a full intergovernmental non-proliferation assessment and EIS review would have to be conducted to change current policy. Importation of either U.S.-origin or foreign-origin plutonium is a major federal action unto itself and would possibly establish a precedent for importation of other such materials, thus underscoring the need for a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process apart from the PEIS now in question.

Highly Enriched Uranium Use: Counter to Non-Proliferation Policy

DOE has proposed use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel in FFTF after year 20 of operation but DOE has not made clear if it also intends to use HEU as a target material in any type of isotope production. DOE must immediately clarify the exact role it intends for weapons-grade uranium in FFTF and if such material would be used before year 20 as target material.

For many years the DOE and other branches of the government have been working to implement a non-proliferation policy to halt the commerce in and use of HEU in research reactors around the world. This program, the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR), has had success in bringing about the conversion of most reactor originally supplied by the Unites States with HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU). This policy of ending use of HEU has been a cornerstone of non-proliferation policy and has had a measurable impact in reducing use of HEU.

Given the backdrop of a successful program to end use of HEU as a reactor fuel or target, any discussion of use of HEU in FFTF flies fully in the face of existing non-proliferation policy and the achievements of the RERTR program. Planned use of HEU in FFTF would be a dramatic reversal of an effective U.S. non-proliferation policy and could well spur other nations to reconsider their own programs to halt use of HEU. The implications of new use of HEU in a research reactor in this country are thus far beyond mere fuel selection or target considerations by FFTF operators.

Since its inception in 1978, the RERTR program has in a step-by-step way been successful in nearing the goal of phasing out use of HEU. Yet, the promoters of HEU in FFTF are threatening such success by the wreckless and ill-conceived proposal to operate FFTF with HEU. From a non-proliferation perspective this proposal is dangerous and discussion of HEU use in FFTF must be halted. The PEIS must analyze the policy and associated environmental implications associated with use of HEU in FFTF.

Those who have proposed use of HEU have failed to reveal the source of the fuel would what its isotopic composition would be. Bill Madia, Director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, at a July 29, 1999, presentation on FFTF before the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee (NERAC) — which failed to endorse FFTF restart — presented an overhead which stated that the HEU fuel would be "purchased." Given existing policy to phase out use of HEU, it is unknown where FFTF operators intend to purchase such fuel. This source of HEU and how it will be transported must be specified in the PEIS. With DOE likely out of the business of supplying HEU fuel to research reactors, the sources of such fuel will be limited indeed. Russia could be a possible source but major policy and EIS implications accompany the mere consideration of importing weapons-grade uranium from Russia for use as HEU fuel in FFTF.

As plans for use of HEU targets is also unknown, the role of DOE labs or foreign entities in development of such targets must be clarified. Environmental impacts associated with target development must be discussed in the PEIS. Likewise, processing of such irradiated targets will have both worker and environmental impacts and must be discussed in the PEIS. Any plan to develop LEU targets or fuel, which would be consistent with existing non-proliferation policy if used in non-breeder reactors, and associated environmental impacts also must be part of the NEPA process.

Thank you for considering these comments in the development of the PEIS and other EIS and policy documents which will result if FFTF restart and fueling plans proceeds as now presented.

For the PEIS record, the following documents were submitted on October 27 at the PEIS scoping meeting in Washington, D.C.:

1)  April 27, 1999 letter from NCI to Secretary Richardson on the FFTF restart decision.

2)  NCI paper entitled A Level Playing Field for Medical Isotope Production - How to Phase Out Reliance on HEU, presented in September 1999 in Budapest at the annual RERTR meeting.

Tom Clements
Nuclear Control Institute
1000 Connecticut Ave., NW Suite 804
Washington, D.C. 20036

tel.   202-822-8444
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http://www.nci.org/
clements@nci.org