SRS plutonium shipment to New Mexico postponed

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 12:34 PM
Last updated 10:13 PM
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A plan to demonstrate how some of Savannah River Site’s most contaminated Cold War plutonium waste could be sent to a disposal site in New Mexico will be postponed for several months.

The first transfer, which was to have occurred the week of June 25, is part of an effort to ship 5 kilograms of waste plutonium at a time to the De­partment of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, where lower-level “transuranic” waste is buried a half-mile beneath the Chihuahuan Desert.

That shipment, however, was postponed after the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office rescinded its approval of documents used to define the material. Those documents are under revision, and the delay is expected to be resolved soon, said Barbara Smoak, a spokeswoman for SRS contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

“Because this was a first shipment, there are a lot of documents going back and forth,” she said. “This was all part of testing the process, basically, and the June time frame was a guesstimate.”

Unlike pure plutonium from “pits” once installed on nuclear warheads, the 4.3 metric tons of contaminated “nonpit” plutonium stored at SRS cannot be used in its mixed oxide plant, which is under construction and will blend surplus plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.

The disposal plan calls for packing the plutonium in a new inert material known as “stardust,” which is blended with the waste to render it unattractive to adversaries and make it easier and safer to transport.

The waste that was to leave South Carolina in June remains at SRS, but will likely be shipped sometime this year.

“We are making sure everyone understands the process and that the waste stream profile forms are clear,” Smoak said. “My understanding is that we will be shipping it early this fall.”

Once blended with other materials, the 5 kilograms of plutonium waste will fill 35 shipping drums that can be hauled by truck inside special containers.

Currently, 585 kilograms of waste plutonium are awaiting shipment to New Mexico.


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