By H. JOSEF HEBERT 09.05.07, 4:05 PM ET
WASHINGTON (AP - The Energy Department plans to send plutonium in Washington state and at research laboratories in New Mexico and California to the Savannah River nuclear complex in South Carolina to improve security and reduce storage costs.
The department said Wednesday that the plutonium shipments, involving 3,000 coffee can-size canisters, could begin as early as next month and last three years.
The consolidation "is a key part of the department's efforts to properly manage surplus plutonium," said James Rispoli, assistant energy secretary for environmental management. He said it will allow for greater security at much less cost.
The consolidation involves plutonium - some mixed with highly enriched uranium - that was produced decades ago for use in nuclear weapons, but is no longer needed, as well as a small amount of plutonium in fuel rods from a closed government reactor.
The transfer does not involve plutonium that is being taken out of dismantled nuclear warheads or plutonium that will continue to be needed for weapons-related research and production of warhead triggers called pits.
The department said the amount of plutonium that will be shipped is classified. Rispoli said each canister has a maximum capacity of 9.7 pounds, but that the amount is significantly less than that since the canisters are not full.
About 2,700 canisters are kept at the department's Hanford complex in Washington state and another 700 canisters are at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Officials didn't provide a breakdown of amounts kept at each of the labs. But the plutonium at Lawrence Livermore has been a focus of controversy for years as local activists have maintained its presence poses a danger to nearby residential communities and represents a potential terrorist target.
Aware that officials in South Carolina have expressed concerns that their state not become a permanent dump for the country's unneeded plutonium, Rispoli emphasized at a news conference that the DOE plans include getting the material out of the state.
"The intent is not only to bring the plutonium there, but dispose of it at the (Savannah) site and then have pathways for all of this material to leave the state," Rispoli said. He said a facility to store the plutonium at Savannah River is being prepared with increased security.
Department officials acknowledged that it will likely take more than a decade - and possibly much longer - before much of the plutonium will be processed and moved elsewhere.
The plan calls for the plutonium to be either converted into a mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, for use at commercial nuclear power plants or be encased in glass logs for eventual transfer to the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository being planned in Nevada.
However, the MOX production facility at Savannah River won't be completed before 2017 at the earliest. And the future of the proposed Yucca Mountain underground repository is in doubt and is not expected to be completed before 2018 if it is built at all.
There already is some plutonium at Savannah River and the MOX facility is being built primarily to process much of the 34 metric tons of plutonium that will come from dismantled warheads.
State officials have agreed to accept plutonium shipments, partly because the construction of the processing facilities - and the processing itself - means hundreds of jobs.
Federal officials view the consolidation - and eventual disposal of much of the excess plutonium - as essential to meet increased security requirements since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a leading nuclear nonproliferation advocacy group, said the group supports consolidation "as long as it's done as safely and securely as possible."
Lyman said all of the plutonium should be vitrified into glass. The group has opposed using plutonium as a mixed oxide fuel in commercial power plants.
[Read the DOE announcement and Supplement Analysis and Amended Record of Decision here.]