More plutonium headed to SRS

Savannah River Site
Savannah River Site

More plutonium is targeted for disposal at the Savannah River Site as concerns rise about an existing stockpile of the radioactive material already on the weapons complex.

Nearly a ton of plutonium, a toxic nuclear weapons component, would be sent from Europe, the Pacific Rim and North America to SRS, where it would be stored until the government decides its final destination, according to a recent U.S. Department of Energy report.

The DOE environmental assessment, completed in November, shows ships would unload the plutonium in Charleston and secure trucks would carry the weapons-grade material 134 miles from the port to SRS near Aiken and Augusta.

It’s being sent to the United States so terrorists can’t steal the material, the federal government says. Some of the plutonium is coming from Japan, according to the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Some of the plutonium “is among the most sensitive nuclear materials in the world – exactly the type of material that we need to ensure never gets into the hands of terrorists,’’ NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli said in an email this week.

Plans to send more plutonium to SRS are surfacing as state and federal officials struggle over what to do about existing plutonium on the 310-square mile site near Aiken.

During the past 15 years, the Energy Department has sent plutonium from nuclear sites across the country to SRS to eventually make mixed oxide fuel for atomic power plants. But construction of a factory to create the fuel is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget – and South Carolina leaders aren’t happy about it. All told, SRS has at least 12 metric tons of plutonium stored there.

Gov. Nikki Haley said last week she wants the government to process the plutonium already on SRS. If not, the government should remove the material, she said. She is considering a lawsuit against the federal government for its failure to process or get rid of the plutonium. Federal law also could result in fines next year of $1 million per day against the federal government for failure to process the material.

Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said this week the governor opposes permanent disposal of plutonium at SRS.

“The governor has been clear about this critical quality of life issue since the beginning of the administration,’’ Adams said in an email. “South Carolina will not be a dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium and nuclear waste.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, The State newspaper learned the Energy Department is considering a plan to ship about six metric tons of plutonium now at SRS to an existing DOE disposal site in New Mexico. Details were not available, but a notice outlining the plan is expected in the federal register as soon as Christmas Eve, records show.

Such a plan could ease concerns in South Carolina, but it would not resolve all of the issues or answer all of the questions about the plutonium buildup at SRS. It wasn’t known if the overseas plutonium to be shipped to SRS would be included in any New Mexico disposal plan.

According to plans to import waste to SRS, seven countries would send plutonium to the U.S., over approximately seven years. A dozen shipments would be made, with cargo loads varying, depending on the country of origin. The report does not list the countries.

Once at SRS, more than 800 of the 1,980 pounds sent to SRS would need to be processed so it could be safely stored. That would take about three years.

The study said one of the greatest threats from transporting plutonium is a vehicle accident that could send the material into the environment. Another concern is if a ship sank and a plutonium package ruptured. In each case, people and sea life could be affected.

Plutonium is a key ingredient in nuclear bombs that can cause cancer if people breathe particles or drink water tainted by the material. Despite that, the environmental study dismissed the potential threats as remote and emphasized the transport would be done safely.

The shipment from Europe and the Pacific Rim would not be unprecedented at SRS, which has been receiving foreign atomic material for years. Some of the material originated in the U.S. and was used for research purposes in other countries.

Federal officials have a policy of bringing nuclear materials generated in the United States back to this country after they’ve been used in other countries. The idea is to keep the material from falling into the hands of rogue nations, which could make the material into nuclear weapons.