A federal plan to send toxic, weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site to New Mexico drew tepid support Wednesday from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is pushing the government to get the material out of the Palmetto State.
A statement from Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams called the proposal “a good thing,” but questioned whether the U.S. Department of Energy will make good on its plan. Last week, Haley threatened legal action against the federal government because it has for years failed to process the plutonium or move it off of SRS.
“This is, obviously, a good thing for South Carolina, but only if the feds follow through on the report and actually move the waste from Savannah River,’’ Adams said in an email. “The DOE does not have a great track record of keeping its promises to the people of South Carolina, which is why we will continue to push them in every way we can to make sure our state is not a dumping ground for others’ nuclear waste.”
The DOE proposal, which surfaced this week, would send six metric tons of plutonium to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. The New Mexico site is an underground atomic waste disposal area carved from a salt mine. It is now shut down following a 2014 nuclear accident, but is expected to reopen, perhaps as early as 2016.
Surplus plutonium would be processed at SRS and turned into a waste material that officials say would be suitable for disposal in the New Mexico burial site, according to the plan that’s expected to be listed in the federal register today.
The proposal to move the six metric tons is significant because it is the first plan of its kind, and the amount to be moved is sizable, said Tom Clements, who runs the nuclear watchdog group Savannah River Site Watch. SRS is known to have about 13 metric tons of plutonium. The material to be moved is from the United States and other countries, Clements said.
A public notice says a final decision to ship the material to New Mexico could be made in about a month.
But Clements and Don Hancock, who heads the Southwest Research and Information Center, said the plan faces plenty of hurdles, ranging from a lack of funding to public opposition in New Mexico. There also is limited space at the New Mexico site that could preclude any shipments from SRS, they said. Resolving all those issues could take years. The research center is a New Mexico environmental group.
“This is pretty typical DOE: making a bad situation worse,’’ Hancock said, noting the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was not designed to take weapons-grade plutonium from SRS. “A lot of people would say this is not OK.’’
Leaving excess plutonium at SRS has been a source of concern in South Carolina for 15 years. During the early part of this century, the DOE designated SRS as a national repository for surplus plutonium no longer needed to build nuclear bombs. It then began shipping tons of material from other federal nuclear sites to SRS for storage and eventual processing in a mixed oxide fuel plant.
But construction of a plant to make the mixed oxide fuel in the United States is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Haley says the government needs to either process the plutonium or get it out of South Carolina. A federal law, which critics say has loopholes, subjects the DOE to fines of up to $1 million per day for failing to make MOX fuel from the plutonium or move it out of South Carolina.
Plutonium, often considered one of the most dangerous atomic materials, is a primary component of nuclear bombs that can cause cancer in people exposed to it.
The proposal to build the MOX plant resulted from an international nuclear non proliferation agreement with Russia to get rid of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium in each country. Clements, who opposes construction of the MOX plant, said he hopes the plan to send some plutonium to New Mexico signals the government’s further reluctance to build the plant.