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On January 4, 2000, the Department announced its decision to dispose of up to 50 metric tons of surplus weapons-usable plutonium by immobilizing approximately one-third of it and using the remainder to fabricate mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which will be irradiated in existing commercial nuclear reactors to make the plutonium inaccessible and unattractive for weapons use. Three new facilities will be constructed and operated at the Savannah River Site for pit disassembly, plutonium immobilization, and MOX fuel fabrication, the latter facility to be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This major decision, the culmination of a complex NEPA process that began with a programmatic EIS initiated six years ago, was based on a tiered project-specific EIS that included a supplement to the draft EIS. (In a parallel procurement process, DOE also prepared an environmental critique and synopsis under Section 216 of the DOE NEPA regulations.)

In the project-specific Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS (DOE/EIS-0283), DOE evaluated 15 action alternatives involving seven DOE sites and three commercial reactor sites. Planning and executing an appropriate NEPA compliance strategy required extensive discussions among numerous affected Program and Field Offices, and the Offices of General Counsel and NEPA Policy and Assistance.

In preparing this EIS and the resulting Record of Decision (ROD) (65 FR 1608; January 11, 2000), the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition discovered that its EIS affected, or was affected by, many other DOE EISs and EAs. These interrelationships required close coordination between that Office and other involved Program and Field Offices to ensure that the EIS used current information. According to Bert Stevenson, the Materials Disposition NEPA Compliance Officer and NEPA Document Manager, “Close coordination was especially important in preparing the cumulative impact analysis. A total of 35 NEPA documents contributed to it. We had to cope with several moving targets and tie them all together into a credible analysis. I was in almost daily contact with my counterparts in Defense Programs, Environmental Management, and the Field Offices.”

Tiering and an Amended Programmatic ROD

The Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS was tiered from the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic EIS (DOE/EIS-0229). In the Programmatic ROD (62 FR 3014; January 21, 1997), DOE selected strategies for storage of weapons-usable fissile materials and disposition of surplus plutonium; the strategy included consolidating part of DOE’s weapons-usable plutonium storage at the Savannah River Site. The Programmatic ROD made moving plutonium to the Savannah River Site for storage contingent on completing a new storage facility and selecting Savannah River as the site for immobilizing plutonium in the subsequent Surplus Plutonium Disposition ROD. However, when Environmental Management identified possible difficulties in meeting the closure schedule for the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, DOE amended the programmatic ROD (63 FR 43386; August 13, 1998) to allow for earlier shipment of plutonium from Rocky Flats by upgrading existing storage facilities at the Savannah River Site.

“216 Process” and a Supplemental Draft EIS

While preparing the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Draft EIS, DOE initiated a procurement consistent with DOE’s NEPA regulations at 10 CFR 1021.216 (the “216 process”) to obtain MOX fuel fabrication and reactor irradiation services under a privatization approach. (Section 216 establishes an environmental review process within the procurement process for evaluating proposals. DOE uses the 216 process when it needs to meet significant acquisition objectives before the NEPA process can be completed, as often is inherent to a privatization approach. See Lessons Learned Quarterly Report, September 1997, page 8.)

The May 1998 Request for Proposals for this work defined limited activities that could be performed before a Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS ROD. Per the 216 process, DOE requested that each offeror provide, as part of its proposal, information on facility design for MOX fuel fabrication and on commercial reactors proposed for irradiation services. This information was used in the procurement process to identify potential environmental impacts of the proposals and was documented in an environmental critique. In addition, an environmental synopsis, based on the environmental critique, was provided to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and made available to the public. In March 1999, DOE awarded a contract (contingent on DOE selecting the contractor’s approach after completing NEPA review) for fuel fabrication and reactor irradiation services. The award decision was based, in part, on the analysis documented in the environmental critique.

Meanwhile, DOE issued the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Draft EIS in July 1998, which generically assessed the potential environmental impacts of using MOX fuel in commercial nuclear reactors. In April 1999, DOE issued a Supplement to the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Draft EIS that incorporated the synopsis and analyzed the potential environmental impacts of using MOX fuel in the specific commercial reactors. “This approach helped save us some time in that we issued the Draft EIS, followed by a Supplement to the Draft EIS, a Final EIS, and a ROD,” said Mr. Stevenson.

Meeting Milestones Through Teamwork

As the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition was preparing the Final EIS and identifying Los Alamos National Laboratory as the preferred alternative for fabrication of test MOX fuel rods, Defense Programs raised questions about the Laboratory’s capability to support this activity in addition to its existing mission requirements. Materials Disposition, however, was concerned that delays in the Surplus Plutonium Disposition EIS would affect its overall program schedule, which included Environmental Management’s commitments to the State of Colorado regarding the shipment of Rocky Flats surplus plutonium to the Savannah River Site.

After much internal discussion, the matter was resolved by compromise: DOE selected Los Alamos National Laboratory for the manufacture of the test fuel rods, but deferred deciding which facility at the Laboratory will be used for the final stages of the test assembly work. Materials Disposition and Defense Programs established a process, which may involve further NEPA review, to resolve the longer-term issues.

Timely publication of the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Final EIS and ROD could not have been accomplished without extraordinary teamwork among many offices. Mr. Stevenson advises NEPA Document Managers to identify possible linkages to other proposals and NEPA reviews early in the internal scoping process: “When numerous sites and programs are involved in a NEPA review, coordinating data calls and project milestones is the only way to avoid potential conflicts and inefficiencies."