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DOE discloses amount of surplus plutonium at SRS; future disposition explained

May 18, 2019

Roughly 12 metric tons of surplus plutonium is currently stored at the Savannah River Site, a figure that was recently declassified by the U.S. Department of Energy, a National Nuclear Security Administration official said Thursday.

The approximate 12 metric tons includes material originally destined for the shuttered Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility as well as material flagged for an ongoing downblending campaign at SRS, the official said. Downblending is a plutonium disposition method.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management – with help from the NNSA – is right now working to downblend 6 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium, an NNSA spokesperson told the Aiken Standard.

Those 6 metric tons are wholly separate from the 34 metric tons of defense plutonium that was designated for disposal via MOX.

Environmental Management, formed in 1989, is the SRS landlord and is tasked with cleaning up the government’s nuclear legacy. The NNSA is a semiautonomous DOE agency in charge of the nation’s nuclear outfit and related nonproliferation.

MOX, which the NNSA terminated in October 2018, was designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel; the project was more than a decade in the making and was over budget when it was axed.

Most of the material bound for MOX was never at SRS, the official said. A “majority” of the material once meant for MOX is right now being held northeast of Amarillo, Texas, at the Pantex Plant.

In May 2018, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry told congressional defense committees that the 34 metric tons of defense plutonium would be dispositioned via a method known as dilute-and-dispose – downblended, essentially.

Dilute-and-dispose involves mixing plutonium with special material and, in this case, sending it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for long-term storage.

That MOX-replacing dilute-and-dispose campaign, still in its infancy, is officially known as the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project. In fiscal year 2019, Congress authorized design work to support the project. Recently, the NNSA requested appropriations for the project as a capital line item.

The Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project entails the installation of three new gloveboxes, ventilation, “fire protections and other support equipment” at SRS, according to the NNSA spokesperson.

The disposition project – which both Perry and NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty have said is cheaper and more efficient than MOX – will begin in 2028, according to a NNSA strategic roadmap. The map was made publicly available earlier this year alongside a cluster of other NNSA guidance documents.

If the “appropriate” National Environmental Policy Act analysis is finished before 2028, the NNSA can “begin processing” plutonium at SRS by way of current capabilities, the NNSA spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the DOE is required to get 1 metric ton of defense plutonium out of SRS – out of the Palmetto State more broadly – by 2020. One half-metric ton has already been sent to the Nevada National Security Site, a move later disclosed in federal court documents.

The move to Nevada roiled lawmakers. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has said the clandestine shipments shredded the state’s trust in the DOE.

Perry recently promised U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, the DOE would begin relocating the half-metric ton away from NNSS in 2021. The effort will wrap by the end of 2026, Perry said.

Pantex is standing up a plutonium staging mission directly tied to the NNSA’s plutonium removal efforts, according to independent oversight documents and confirming comments from the NNSA.

The matter was previously reported by the Aiken Standard.

The total 1 metric ton slated for removal will ultimately be sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to a July 2018 NNSA study. It will be used for plutonium pit production, per the same information.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores.

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