02 November 2007

Surplus Plutonium to be Consolidated in South Carolina??

Surplus Plutonium to Be Consolidated in South Carolina

WASHINGTON, DC, September 6, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE, says it will consolidate surplus radioactive plutonium at its Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile complex bordering the Savannah River between South Carolina and Georgia. The facility is one of several that manages the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear materials.

Starting in 30 days, the agency will move some 3,000 plutonium storage containers across the country to their new location, a process that will not be finished until 2010.

The plutonium will come from the Hanford Site in Washington state, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"Consolidation is a key part of the department's efforts to properly manage surplus plutonium and follows our dedication to non-proliferation, environmental management and national security," said Assistant Secretary of Energy for Environmental Management James Rispoli announcing the move on Wednesday.

"Today's decision continues the momentum for the safe disposition of surplus materials," he said.

Some 2,300 plutonium storage containers from Hanford and close to 700 from Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos Labs will be transported to the Savannah River Site.

The agency said moving the plutonium to Savannah River would reduce the number of sites holding special nuclear material, "enhancing the security of these materials and reducing the costs associated with plutonium storage, surveillance and monitoring, and security at multiple sites."

Only non-pit plutonium will be shipped, that is plutonium which comes from sources other than nuclear weapons triggers, or pits.

Once the material is at the Savannah River Site, the department plans to make mixed oxide, MOX, fuel by mixing plutonium and uranium oxides to use in specially equipped nuclear power reactors.

The first U.S. MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility is currently under construction.

In another disposal plan, the agency says it will use the existing H-Canyon facility, so called because of the long, narrow shape of the building in which chemical separations of radioactive materials takes place.

H Canyon provides a path for recycling the uranium into commercial nuclear power plant fuel in lieu of planned disposal at a federal geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which is stalled in budgetary and political conflict.

A third plan is to immobilize some of the surplus plutoniuim in a proposed new, small-scale plutonium vitrification plant that would encase it in glass.

"DOE will evaluate reducing and possibly eliminating the need for the vitrification capability, and instead disposing of all the surplus plutonium through the MOX facility and H-Canyon," the agency said today.

The citizens group Nuclear Watch South says it "acknowledges the urgent need to provide security for plutonium" but opposes MOX manufacturing.

Coordinator Glenn Carroll warns that

"Transporting highly toxic plutonium - one-millionth of a gram can induce lung cancer in a human - risks the health of millions of citizens along transportation routes. No analysis of risk of terrorism for shipping plutonium has been done."

The MOX plutonium fuel program "is already nine years behind schedule" and the plutonium proposed to be shipped for storage to Savannah River Site is of similar quality to 12 tons of "orphan" plutonium already at the site that is unsuitable for conversion to MOX fuel, Carroll says, cautioning that the plutonium arriving at the site "is likely to add to the stockpile that has defied disposition to date."

"The plutonium 'disposition' program is in disarray," Carroll says, pointing out that MOX is dependent on 30 years of sustained Congressional support and Congress has displayed increasing discomfort with the MOX program, cancelling it completely for several months earlier this year.

Plutonium vitrification, also called immobilization, a process that encases the radioactive material in glass, is supported by Nuclear Watch South and other environmentalists, and the junk "orphan" plutonium is well suited to vitrification, says Carroll.

He notes that DOE's commitment to immobilization is weak.

"We recognize the unique infrastructure of Savannah River Site and abilities of its workforce to perform the mission of plutonium disposition via immobilization," said Carroll. "We oppose shipping the plutonium until DOE has reconciled the conflicts in its internal vision and created a solid plan for plutonium disposition."

The DOE says it has notified Congress and provided a plan for the disposal of the surplus plutonium once it gets to Savannah River, as required under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2002.

Consolidation of surplus plutonium at Savannah River has been analyzed in a Supplement Analysis and DOE issued an Amended Record of Decision for the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. To see these documents, click here.

Separately from this consolidation announcement, the Energy Department is preparing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for Surplus Plutonium Disposition at the Savannah River Site to evaluate the potential environmental impacts of alternative methods of disposing of the surplus, non-pit plutonium materials.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights res

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