U.S. Pivots From Nuclear Reactor Fuel to Bomb Cores

Shipping packages holding plutonium oxide at the Savannah River Site 2018 (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy)


COLUMBIA, South Carolina, February 14, 2019 (ENS) – The U.S. Department of Energy, DOE, has secretly shipped a large amount of weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina to Nevada.

Other than the fact that it happened before November 2018, it is unknown exactly when the shipment of half a metric tonne (500 kilograms or 1,100 pounds) was on the road.

Shipping packages holding plutonium oxide at the Savannah River Site 2018 (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Removed from a stockpile of 13 metric tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium at the Savannah River Site, the plutonium was transferred from the K-Reactor storage facility at SRS to an area officials called “staging” at the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Nuclear Security Site about 65 miles (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas.

The shipment occurred over the objections of Nevada, which lost its request for a preliminary injunction to stop DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration from packaging and moving the plutonium.

The Department of Energy, DOE, on January 30 informed the U.S. District Court for the State of Nevada that the shipment was completed before November 2018.

Citing “operational security” reasons, no public notice was given before the shipment took place, the agency said. The highway route taken by the secure DOE transport vehicles carrying the plutonium also is unknown.

In a “Notice of New Information” filed with the federal court in Nevada, DOE stated, “Because sufficient time has now elapsed after conclusion of this campaign, DOE may now publicly state that it has completed all shipment of plutonium (approximately ½ metric ton) to Nevada pursuant to its efforts to comply with the South Carolina U.S. District Court order.”

“Although the precise date that this occurred cannot be revealed for reasons of operational security, it can be stated that this was done before November 2018, prior to the initiation of the litigation,” the agency said.

Calling the plutonium shipment “unnecessary, risky” and unjustified, Tom Clements, director of the NGO Savannah River Site Watch said, “The shipment of this large amount of plutonium on our nation’s highways has no justification beyond pleasing the federal court in South Carolina, and due to the environmental and security risks it posed it should have never taken place.”

“We hope that this shipment concludes the campaign to transfer plutonium from SRS to Nevada and that the remaining plutonium at SRS remains in secure storage until a disposition path is clear,” said Clements.

DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration says it has reclassified the plutonium at issue as having a national defense need and that it could at some point in the future be fabricated into plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons.

Clements rejects that argument, saying, “DOE has a huge amount of surplus plutonium, making the reclassification of this material unnecessary, and no justification has been presented of need for new pit fabrication capacity for nuclear weapons.”

Repurposing the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility

The State of South Carolina’s effort to have the plutonium removed from the Savannah River Site and taken to Nevada was part of a last-ditch effort to save DOE’s plutonium fuel (MOX) project at SRS.

The $17 billion MOX plant under construction at Savannah River Site, 2017 (Photo ©High Flyer, special to SRS Watch used with permission)

The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at Savannah River was being built to convert surplus nuclear weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for civilian nuclear power generation, when construction was shut down by a federal court order.

The MOX Program was designed to convert 34 metric tons of military plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, but the project was plagued by endless cost overruns.

CB&I AREVA MOX Services, LLC, had 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.

MOX, a blend of plutonium and uranium oxides, has been used in commercial nuclear reactors in Europe and Japan for more than 40 years.

The SRS facility design was based on successful AREVA facilities in France, which produce MOX fuel for 30 European nuclear reactors, modified to meet U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements.

This work was planned to support international nuclear nonproliferation agreements in which the United States and Russia are supposed to decommission 68 metric tons of surplus plutonium, enough for some 17,000 nuclear weapons.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steve Perry celebrates changes to the U.S. nuclear program in Texas. January 2019 (Photo courtesy NNSA)

But on May 10, 2018 Energy Secretary Rick Perry submitted a letter to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee asking to discontinue construction of the MOX facility. South Carolina objected, bringing a case to halt termination in federal court in Columbia.

Perry informed Congress he had effectively ended the MOX project. Perry stated that the cost of a dilute and dispose approach to the plutonium would cost less than half of the remaining lifecycle cost of the MOX plant program.

A final ruling affirming the Department of Energy’s termination of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility project at Savannah River Site was issued January 8, 2019 by a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia.

“South Carolina alleges that the United States Department of Energy unlawfully failed to (1) prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the long-term storage of plutonium in the state; and (2) follow statutory waiver provisions for terminating construction of the facility,” the appeals court ruling states. “We conclude that South Carolina has not established standing to pursue either of these claims.”

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the DOE’s request to terminate the plant’s construction authorization.

From Reactor Fuel to Bomb Cores

Now that termination of the MOX facility is moving ahead, three nuclear watchdog nonprofit organizations are warning the public that the point of moving the plutonium from the Savannah River Site to Nevada is to “quadruple the production rate of plutonium bomb cores,” or pits.

The plutonium pit, or bomb core, is the key nuclear ingredient in the first stage in an exploding nuclear weapon.

The groups say the Department of Energy intends to convert the partially completed MOX plant to plutonium pit production, from making fuel for commercial nuclear reactors to making plutonium bomb cores.

NNSA intends to house redundant plutonium pit production in the repurposed MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch, and Tri-Valley CAREs sent a letter of demand to the National Nuclear Security Administration to inform the government that its plan to quadruple the production rate of plutonium bomb cores is out of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA.

The groups say the NNSA has failed to undertake a legally-mandated programmatic review and hold required public hearings.

The groups’ letter specifies, “…if NNSA continues to move forward with new pit production capacity at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site, it must begin preparation of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, as mandated by NEPA, without delay.”

During a February 2017 confirmation hearing, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty testified that expanded plutonium pit production was her number one priority.

On May 10, 2018, by then head of the agency, Gordon-Hagerty announced that by the year 2030 NNSA would produce at least 30 pits per year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at least 50 pits per year at the Savannah River Site.

U.S. industrial-scale bomb core production ended in 1989 in the closing days of the Cold War when the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver while investigating environmental crimes at the site.

In 1996 the Department of Energy formally relocated the pit production mission to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico after completing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that specifically capped production at 20 pits per year.

NNSA is now moving ahead with plans to quadruple that rate while establishing redundant production at the Savannah River Site, a completely new mission at that site.

Clements said, “Out of a misguided rush to build a new pit plant, NNSA stated that the way is now clear for starting pit production at SRS, but they are in error. There is no current legal basis for repurposing the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility for a plutonium pit production mission, so that work cannot now proceed.”

Clements warned the federal agency, “NNSA should be aware that rushing to now convert the MOX plant to pit production can only cause legal headaches.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2019. All rights reserved.


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