Mixed-oxide fuel signals another success story for SRS

Aug. 1st marked the 2nd anniversary of the beginning of construction of the mixed-oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site.

It seems everyone knows the role that SRS played in winning the cold war by producing prodigious quantities of plutonium and tritium, but not everyone knows the role that SRS continues to play in our nation's nuclear posture. To be sure, tritium reservoirs continue to be serviced at SRS in support of our much reduced nuclear stockpile, but the role of SRS in the disposition of nuclear materials is a true swords-to-plowshares example.

THE STORY BEGINS back when Russia and the United States agreed to dismantle defined numbers of weapons systems. Matching commitments were made to dispose of weapons grade materials. The two countries entered into agreements to convert nuclear weapons based on highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium to be used for nuclear reactor fuel. The United States agreed to buy the uranium from the Russians, and also converted many tons of weapons grade uranium from our arsenal to LEU.

Some of the blend down of HEU to LEU was accomplished at SRS. Much of the uranium in U.S. reactors today was once in nuclear weapons. In fact, 50 percent of all nuclear energy produced in this country is powered by uranium that used to be in Soviet weapons pointed at our cities and our allies.

In addition to uranium-based weapons, there were and are plutonium-based weapons. These also were targeted for reductions, and the two countries needed an approach to deal with all sorts of plutonium-bearing materials including dismantled warheads.

It was my privilege to both serve on and chair the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy's Plutonium Focus Area. Our task was to advise on technology to enable the disposition of the excess plutonium. Each country, of course, wanted to have some confidence that the other was doing something verifiable, so mutual discussions were common.

THE UNITED STATES often emphasized elaborate technology schemes (our panel had significant national laboratory representation) to immobilize the plutonium in a proliferation-resistant state. These included grouts, synthetic rock, glass and co-disposal with spent nuclear fuel.

The Russians were astounded. They couldn't believe that we were willing to take this material, which we had spent billions of dollars producing, and just throw it away. Not only throw it away, but spend a lot of additional money to get rid of it. The Russians saw it for what is was: a tremendous energy resource.

The United States eventually came to the same conclusion and opted for converting 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel to provide electrical energy for the U.S. economy. So instead of having thousands of nuclear weapons, we will use the plutonium to power our hospitals, schools and factories.

That is what the MOX project symbolizes to me -- a path taken to turn away from unthinkable destruction toward a hopeful future of clean energy, while rendering the original material useless for future weapons.

The contractor building the MOX facility, Shaw AREVA MOX-LLC, will join a distinguished list of companies whose collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy at SRS have helped to make the world a safer place. The facility is on time and on budget, and we wish them and the DOE continued success as they safely prepare it for its historical mission.

Who says there are no good news stories anymore?

(The writer is executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.)