Originally created 11/05/02

Plutonium-packing system slows job



GOLDEN, Colo. - Experts say a temperamental machine could slow down shipments of weapons-grade plutonium from the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant Rocky Flats to Savannah River Site.

The semiautomated machine, designed to tuck the plutonium safely into shipping containers, is acting up. It was shut down for three weeks in September, and one in five containers still is failing safety checks, said Dave Hicks, a plutonium removal manager for the Energy Department, which owns Rocky Flats.

"The machine is still temperamental ... but there's every reason to believe we will finish, probably in the summer," Mr. Hicks said.

Rocky Flats managers have said they need to ship away the last of their weapons-grade plutonium by the end of 2003 to get the site cleaned up and closed down by a 2006 deadline.

"If we complete packaging by summer, we will have no problem supporting the shipping campaign," Mr. Hicks said, adding he's confident the packaging will be done by then.

But the plutonium-packing machine definitely has been disappointing, he said. The machine automatically tucks the metal into double-barreled containers, sealing them with a laser weld. The laser also has needed continual adjustment, Mr. Hicks said.

He and his colleagues had hoped to be done sealing the expected total of 1,900 barrels by January 2003 - that was based on the machine's finishing 140 barrels a month. In the 17 months the system has been in operation, however, it has completed just 1,050 barrels - an average of 62 a month.

Apart from the recent breakdown, though, monthly production numbers have been higher recently, about 100 since spring, Mr. Hicks said.

The shipments were held up for nearly 10 months between the fall of 2001 and last summer by a dispute between the state of South Carolina and the federal government.