COLUMBIA, SC A shipment of plutonium, a deadly ingredient in nuclear weapons, has arrived in South Carolina from Japan as part of an effort the government has said will prevent radioactive material from falling into the hands of terrorists and rogue states.
Anti-nuclear activists said ships carrying the plutonium apparently made it to Charleston over the weekend and the material was then trucked to the Savannah River Site near Aiken for storage. The National Nuclear Security Administration confirmed the plutonium’s arrival but offered few details.
The shipment is part of a plan to bring nearly a ton of plutonium to South Carolina from Europe, the Pacific Rim and North America. The material will be processed at SRS and eventually sent to a disposal site in New Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
All told, the government plans to send about 6 metric tons from SRS to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. The Japanese plutonium would be part of that, officials said. The New Mexico facility is now closed but is expected to open by next year, although some say it could be years before plutonium leaves SRS for that facility.
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In addition to the plutonium, also entering the U.S. was a shipment of highly enriched uranium, which was sent to Oak Ridge, Tenn., federal officials said.
An anti-nuclear group criticized the government’s decision to bring the plutonium to South Carolina, questioning why the material could not be disposed of in stable countries such as Japan, France or the United Kingdom. Critics have in the past asked if plutonium would be left at SRS forever, effectively making the site a national nuclear disposal ground. About one-third of a ton was in the shipment through Charleston to SRS, according to SRS Watch.
“SRS Watch is concerned that this material has been brought to SRS with no clear plan for its disposal,’’ the group’s Tom Clements said in a statement Monday. “That plutonium should go to the UK and France, both nuclear weapons states with large stockpiles of plutonium.’’
Gov. Nikki Haley’s office issued a statement Tuesday expressing displeasure with the DOE, saying the governor won’t allow South Carolina to “be a permanent dumping ground for nuclear waste." Haley has been critical of leaving plutonium at SRS without a disposition path.
But federal officials said bringing the plutonium to SRS will make the world safer. The shipment to SRS is not unprecedented. The nuclear weapons complex has received other atomic material from foreign countries in the past.
“The removal of the material from Japan represents a significant accomplishment in our broader global nuclear security efforts to secure highly enriched uranium and plutonium worldwide,’’said DOE Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz.
“Japan has been one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the global effort to minimize, and when possible eliminate, the use of sensitive nuclear materials at research facilities. This strong partnership has helped the international community ensure that these materials never find their way into the hands of criminals, terrorists, or other unauthorized actors.”
The ships that dropped off the plutonium are British vessels that are now headed back to the United Kingdom, SRS Watch said.