UCS FOIA Finally Uncovers the NRC Staff’s Plan for Weakening Fissile Material Security

November 19, 2012 | 8:49 pm
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

In June 2011, UCS filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a non-public document entitled “Material Categorization and Future Fuel Cycle Facility Security Related Rulemaking,”  SECY-09-0123, dated September 4, 2009.  UCS had previously tried to obtain the document by requesting it directly from the NRC, because at least one NRC commissioner had advised that the document, minus one classified attachment, should be publicly released. However, the NRC ultimately refused to release it, forcing UCS to file a FOIA request. After some prodding, NRC finally released the document in heavily redacted form in October 2012.

The document outlines the NRC staff’s proposal to “risk-inform” the NRC’s security regulations for nuclear weapon-usable materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium.  Central to this proposal is a reduction of security requirements for materials the NRC staff considers to be in less “attractive” forms for weapons, such as plutonium contained in mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel elements, where it is mixed with natural uranium, which is not weapon-usable.

The problem is that the NRC staff has not demonstrated that these so-called unattractive materials are as benign as it asserts. In fact, an NRC-commissioned study at Los Alamos National Laboratory to assess these claims is only now getting underway and will not have results for two years. In the meantime, the NRC staff’s premature and ill-advised recommendation has sent a signal around the world that MOX fuel and similar materials are not major security threats and do not require the highest levels of protection – exactly the wrong message to send to countries like France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, China, Japan and South Korea that either have or would like to begin spent fuel reprocessing and plutonium fuel production programs.

And at home, the proposal presumably sent a comforting message to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is building a controversial factory to make MOX fuel from surplus weapon plutonium. NNSA may be able to cut its security costs substantially once the new rules come into effect, reducing a price tag for the program that is currently estimated to exceed $15 billion. But NNSA’s security cost-cutting has had disastrous effects elsewhere in the complex, such as at the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant.

For more details on this issue, see my paper “Is Dilution the Solution to the Plutonium Threat?

One proposal in the NRC document (SECY-09-0123) is actually sensible: namely, that the NRC should close a major loophole and change its regulations so that certain isotopes, such as neptunium-237 and americium-241, are treated like the nuclear weapon-usable materials they are known to be. However, while the NRC commissioners approved the staff’s plan to risk-inform security, it rejected the inclusion of these materials in the new security framework.  Again, this sends the wrong signal to countries like South Korea who falsely argue that reprocessing technologies such as “pyroprocessing” are not a proliferation threat because they do not separate plutonium from other actinides like neptunium-237.

Matt Wald blogged about this today on the New York Times website.