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A-weapons fuel: production waits on US debate

Congress and the Carter administration are fighting a quiet battle over the production of materials for new nuclear weapons. For some years, members of Congress have been urging the administration to reopen the plutonium-uranium extraction (PUREX) reprocessing plant at the Hanford Reservation here.

The facility would be used to separate the plutonium needed for warheads for new weapons like the MX missile, the Trident missile system, and the new cruise missiles to be carried on B-52 bombers.

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But the Carter administration repeatedly has deleted funds needed to bring the plant back into operation. The facility has been idle since 1972.

"Basically, the administration does not believe there will be a long-term need for nuclear materials, while the Congress does," said an aide to Rep. Mike McCormack (D) of Washington.

Under pressure from the congressional Armed Services Committees, the Department of Energy (DOE) has undertaken a new study to determine if it is feasible to ship spent fuel stored here at Hanford to South Carolina for reprocessing at the Allied-General Nuclear Services (AGNS) plant.

There the fuel would be dissolved in acid and the usable uranium and plutonium separated for reactors and military purposes.

The AGNS plant in Barwell, S.C., was built in 1975 by a consortium of oil companies as a civilian venture. But it never went into operation because of President Carter's 1977 halt to all commercial reprocessing of plutonium.

In the past, the DOE has investigated using the plant as a military facility in conjunction with the neighboring Savannah River government plant, but the DOE found it too costly.

The latest study expands its scope to include fuel irradiated at the government-owned N-reactor at Hanford (distinct from Hanford's shutdown PUREX reactor).

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The Hanford N-reactor has been producing fuel-grade plutonium for the civilian Clinch River Breeder Reactor. But it could be converted to military grade on relatively short notice, something that some Pentagon and congressional sources have been urging for the past three years.

Reopening the PUREX plant is another matter however. Even if given the go-ahead now, it would be 1984 before the plant would be back in operation, experts say.

Despite a new climate of military awareness caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter administration again this year cut funding to restart PUREX.

Instead, it proposed spending $5 million to expand the N-reactor's spent-fuel storage pool so that the reactor could stay in operation without reprocessing. In addition to producing plutonium for the DOE, the N-reactor provides 860 megawatts of electricity for the Pacific Northwest.

The House Armed Services Committee cut the $5 million for spent fuel and re-inserted $15 million to bring PUREX back into operation. The appropriation was approved by the House June 25.

Meanwhile, an interagency task force, noting that most of the nation's military weapons date back to the 1950s, has proposed building a new, $3 billion reactor to produce materials for bombs.

Eight reactors built during or shortly after World War II have been permanently retired at Hanford leaving only the N-reactor in operation. It will likely be shut down by the 1990s.

There are three reactors in operation at the government's Savannah River Plant, built in the 1950s. Two other reactors there are in mothballs.

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