Construction is officially complete on a facility to process 90 percent of the radioactive liquid waste stored at Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday, although it’s two-year start date is not keeping critics from squawking.
That’s because the same day, the department announced the arrival of 6 metric tons of additional radioactive material at the site from Japan. The Japanese plutonium is slated for dilution, packaging, shipping and storage in New Mexico by the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The Japanese used the plutonium for research, not as part of nuclear bombs. The agency reported it is not suitable for reactor fuel. The dilution and storage fulfills an agreement the United States and Japan announced two years ago designed to keep it out of the hands of terrorists or rogue countries.
“The removal of the material from Japan represents a significant accomplishment in our broader global nuclear security efforts to secure highly enriched uranium and plutonium worldwide. Japan has been one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the global effort to minimize, and when possible eliminate, the use of sensitive nuclear materials at research facilities,” said NNSA Administrator Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz.
While SRS has used the dilution process for nearly 15 years, the Department of Energy says it hopes to have operations running by end of the year. However, the site for storing the packages of diluted material is not accepting new shipments for the time being, the department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, because of an accidental leak.
That troubles nuclear opponents who fear the added plutonium will merely become more hazardous material in limbo at SRS. Plus, the NNSA stated it intends to import additional plutonium from other countries.
“SRS Watch demands that DOE and the U.S. government halt plans to bring more foreign plutonium to SRS until non-proliferation justification can be given and the disposal plan for 13 metric tons of plutonium now at SRS be presented,” said Tom Clements, executive director of the SRS Watch advocacy organization.
The state of South Carolina is suing the Energy Department over the existing 13 tons, arguing that federal law required it to be removed by now or else the department owes the state $100 million in penalties. Attorneys for the state urged a federal judge to quickly decide because more plutonium shipments are expected. A hearing is scheduled in Columbia for June 30.
Gov. Nikki Haley wrote Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month calling for the Japanese plutonium to go elsewhere.
“Continued shipments of plutonium into our state puts South Carolina at risk for becoming a permanent dumping ground for nuclear materials. It is imperative to the safety of our citizens and our environment that South Carolina not allow this to happen,” Haley wrote.
The site’s biggest construction project, the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, is still years away from completion despite the law and lawsuit. It is designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel that commercial reactors can burn in generating electricity, starting with 13 metric tons already held at SRS.
The Japanese plutonium isn’t suited for conversion to fuel, the Energy Department said. Besides, the administration wants to shift to dilution and storage for all of the SRS plutonium, too, halting construction of the MOX facility midway.
However, the now-complete Salt Waste Processing Facility, which had been under construction since 2012, will handle liquid waste rather than the enriched plutonium. It will increase the processing of 36 million gallons of high-level waste stored in tanks on the site left over from the manufacture of nuclear weapons that ended more than three decades ago.
The contractor started in 2012 and wrapped up its work in April, but the Energy Department spent the next 30 days checking it. That finish was eight months and $60 million better than original projections.
“While construction work is now complete, we are pushing forward to reach our shared goal of getting this facility into operation by 2018,” said Jack Craig, the department’s SRS manager.
The next two years will be devoted to testing the facility and training workers.
The site announced Tuesday it has selected 80 operations employees who will undergo two years of training for jobs at various places around the site. They were hired to keep the size of the workforce constant since half of existing employees will become eligible for retirement over the next five years.
It also has taken on 42 interns as part of its education program to develop future workers.