A train carrying seven casks with 232 radioactive fuel rods from overseas rolled into Savannah River Site Friday afternoon. It was the fourth such shipment since a federal judge cleared the path last year for foreign nuclear waste to be stored at the South Carolina plant.
The transports are expected to continue for years, although it looks like the total volume of waste destined for SRS will drop.
Four western nations likely won't send their spent fuel to the United States at this point. That means SRS will receive 25 percent less foreign waste than initially believed, said Dave Huizenga, acting deputy assistant secretary for nuclear materials at the Department of Energy.
"I think that's pretty significant," he said Friday.
Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Canada are looking for other ways to deal with the uranium elements currently stored at research reactors in their countries. The United States exported the highly enriched uranium to more than 40 nations after World War II with the understanding that it would once be returned to American soil.
There is concern that the material could otherwise be diverted and used in nuclear bombs - something the federal government is trying to prevent.
Because of cost concerns associated with the shipments, however, the Dutch and the Canadians now consider storing the fuel in their own countries. The Belgians will likely send their fuel to be chemically separated at a French reprocessing plant and then downgraded to low-enriched uranium that cannot be used in weapons, Mr. Huizenga said.
The French were always luke-warm about the idea, he said.
"This is still a non-proliferation win for the United States," Mr. Huizenga said. "I think what people should be happy about is that we're achieving our goal while minimizing the burden on South Carolina."
SRS spokesman Jim Giusti said the expected drop in shipments from 19 metric tons over the next decade to 15 tons won't affect the program. The fuel rods are kept for now in water-filled basins to shield workers from radiation.
Two South Carolina governors sued the Energy Department over the decision to store foreign fuel at SRS and lost. Although the government hopes to one day open an underground waste dump in Nevada that the dangerous materials could eventually be transferred to, the governors said they feared it would be left indefinitely at SRS.
Since the last court battle ended, things have running smoothly, Mr. Huizenga said.