COLUMBIA, South Carolina, December 8, 2017 (ENS) – A leaked one-page document seen by ENS confirms that the U.S. Department of Energy is considering the use of a nuclear fuel plant at the government’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina for production of plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons.
A pit is the plutonium core of a nuclear weapon.
The undated “Summary of Results” was produced by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, NNSA, and was leaked earlier this week.
It gives the costs and time frames for two ways of using the Savannah River Site to produce the plutonium pits.
The “refurbishment approach” would utilize the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication facility now under construction at the Savannah River Site to produce 80 pits per year.
The leaked document states that this would cost from $1.4 billion to $5.4 billion and would be ready for operation between Fiscal Year 2024 and FY 2031.
The document also lists a possible new facility at the Savannah River Site to manufacture the plutonium pits.
This option would cost between $1.8 and $6.7 billion and would be ready to go into production between FY 2027 and FY 2033.
“Risks,” listed for both options include “no pit production experience” at the Savannah River Site and a “potentially contentious state government.”
Long-time nuclear watchdog Tom Clements, director of the nonprofit Savannah River Site Watch, says, “Such a mission would greatly expand the focus on nuclear weapons at the the Savannah River Site, which is now constrained to the processing and packaging of tritium gas for use in all U.S. nuclear weapons.”
The “refurbishment” option using the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, follows President Donald Trump’s FY 2018 Budget Request, released in May.
The plant produces mixed oxide, MOX, a type of nuclear fuel designed for use in breeder reactors, consisting of a blend of uranium and plutonium oxides.
“The FY 2018 Budget Request proposes to terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute and dispose option as an alternative,” the appendix states.
The MOX facility was earmarked for termination by the President Barack Obama in the FY2017 budget proposal; President Trump’s budget follows Obama’s lead.
“The FY 2018 Budget Request proposes to terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute and dispose option as an alternative,” the appendix reads.
An official with the National Nuclear Security Administration confirmed at a June 7 meeting of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that the Savannah River Site, SRS, is being considered for plutonium pit production.
“While it’s clear that the MOX debacle is not sustainable and remains on a shut-down track, production of nuclear weapons pits at SRS is not a mission that should be pursued at SRS,” said Clements.
“SRS has not historically produced plutonium pits and to do so would greatly expand the role of SRS in nuclear weapons production, something which would be quite controversial and be faced with both political and public opposition,” said Clements. “The MOX project must be smoothly terminated and other missions pursued at SRS but that should not include a new pit facility or expanded plutonium storage or processing.”
The Savannah River Site is a nuclear reservation located adjacent to the Savannah River, 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia.
The site was built during the 1950s to refine nuclear materials for deployment in nuclear weapons. It covers 310 square miles and employs more than 10,000 people.
CB&I AREVA MOX Services, LLC, has been contracted by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration to design, build, and operate a MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site. Once completed, the facility will convert surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium into safe, stable fuel for civilian nuclear power generation.
In September 2000, the United States and Russia signed an agreement under which each side would turn 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, sufficient for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons, into mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, that could be combined with uranium for use in commercial reactors.
Over the past several years, despite lower levels of funding, MOX construction at SRS continues with a strong nuclear safety and quality record.
As of July 2016, progress included 93 percent of concrete and 96 percent of rebar installed; 325 glove boxes on contract with 129 installed; 27 of 28 long lead glove boxes tested; 72 of 73 tanks installed; and 22 of 31 Active Gallery modules installed.