Two Years After IPS Study, Department of Energy Moves to Dispose Plutonium

In July 2010 IPS released a study indicating that 12.7 metric tons of plutonium was discarded as waste by the U.S. nuclear weapons program. The study was featured in the New York Times a few days later. The amount discarded is more than three times that officially declared by the U.S. government. It was subsequently published in Science and Global Security, a peer review publication at Princeton University. After giving several briefings to federal officials, our study compelled the U.S. government to revisit how it is accounting for this material.

An unused plutonium reactor in Washington State. Photo by Stuart Isett (NY Times)

An unused plutonium reactor in Washington State. Photo by Stuart Isett (NY Times)

In addition to raising serious questions about the ability of the U.S. government to keep track of this nuclear explosive, the IPS report pointed out that plutonium was a potent carcinogen that would remain a danger to humans for 240,000 years. We showed that several tons were dumped into the environment and threatened major water supplies. For instance, nearly a ton of plutonium dumped into the ground at the Hanford site in eastern Washington was rapidly creeping toward the Columbia River – the major fresh water artery of the Pacific Northwest. In less than 1,000 years it would render near shore of the river running through the site uninhabitable. We demanded that this large amount of plutonium be removed for deep geological disposal.

In response to our study, the Department of Energy announced that it would dig up buried plutonium at the Hanford that had been officially declared “already disposed” some 40 years ago, and dispose of it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project — a geologic disposal site for these wastes.