Originally created 09/01/02

Unleashing old energy



AIKEN - This summer, a secretive government mission began.

The first convoy of unmarked 18-wheelers carrying weapons-grade plutonium and escorted by vans and sport utility vehicles arrived at Savannah River Site. Only a select few know the exact date of the arrival.

Some people who live and work near the gates of the site have told The Augusta Chronicle that they have yet to witness the SSTs - "safe secure transports" or "safe secure trailers" - described in court documents.

The DOE has refused to acknowledge the timing and many other specifics of the plutonium movement, although an official from the National Nuclear Security Administration reported that shipments were under way weeks ago.

More unannounced shipments are expected from the closing out of the DOE's Rocky Flats, Colo., installation.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, fearing that the plutonium might never leave South Carolina, had sought an injunction to stop the shipments. But last month a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his appeal of a lower court ruling denying the injunction.

He has promised yet another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a case unlikely to be picked up because similar cases already have established a legal precedent, experts say.

The arrival of the old nuclear bomb triggers, also known as plutonium pits, marks the beginning of an expensive, politically contentious mission at SRS fraught with more challenges.

Scientists will take the plutonium from the spherical pits - so called because they resemble cherry pits - turn it into a purified form of oxide powder and mix it with uranium oxide to form a mixed-oxide fuel.

The MOX fuel will power four nuclear reactors at two nuclear power plants, one in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. The burned plutonium will be rendered useless for weapons.

That transformation carries a significance that extends well beyond the Carolinas.

The beginning of the MOX program in the United States, government officials say, symbolizes the country's intention to make good on an international peace agreement. In 2000, the United States and Russia committed to reducing each country's stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium by 34 tons - effectively reducing a significant portion of the arms threat.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.