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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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Turning bombs into buttons
Jonathan Pait
August 17, 2001

So, our politicians want to keep plutonium out of our fair state. Well, they aren’t doing a very good job. Over 30 metric tons of plutonium 239 and plutonium 238 originated right here in South Carolina at the Savannah River Site.

Plutonium has been transferred over our interstate highway system for years. Historically, SRS created nuclear materials for our nation’s nuclear weapons. Isotopes for NASA deep space missions as well as medical, industrial and research uses have also been produced there.

It all starts with the purpose of producing power for the people of South Carolina. A natural result of this process is the various isotopes that find a purpose in other uses. The rods (uranium used to produce the nuclear reaction) are irradiated, dissolved in a facility for separating chemicals and then the resulting isotopes are sorted from waste materials.

Once the materials were purified and reduced from a liquid solution to a little metal “button” the plutonium has been sent from SRS to the Rocky Flats Plant, near Denver, CO. Trucks containing this material have traveled our highways for over 30 years.

Richard Ford, a DOE spokesman at SRS, expanded on yesterday’s article. We talked about the different approaches to handling the waste.

“To get rid of the plutonium, the US chose two separate tracks to disposition--immobilization and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel--and decided to build facilities for those processes at SRS."
A quick review of these processes: the immobilization track, impure plutonium is converted to a powder, mixed with ceramic, and fired in a furnace to make hockey-puck-sized disks. The disks would be loaded into stainless steel cans, and those cans would be inserted into stainless steel canisters that would be filled with highly radioactive molten glass waste at SRS's Defense Waste Processing Facility, already in operation.

The plutonium-containing canisters, as well as the canisters now being filled with radioactive glass, will be stored at SRS until a geologic repository is ready to receive them; DOE is currently studying Yucca Mountain, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site, as the location for the repository.

The MOX track, pure plutonium (often from decommissioned nuclear warheads and called “pits”) is converted to a powder and then mixed with uranium to form pellets. These pellets are then arranged in what is called a “MOX fuel assembly.” This assembly is then used in existing nuclear power plants to create commercial power. The good thing about this is that it degrades the plutonium to a waste that is not possible to use as a weapon. So, we get rid of the dangerous material and get power at the same time. Call it “pits to pellets to power” if you will.

So, why South Carolina? Mr. Ford explains,

“Among the reasons SRS was chosen for these nonproliferation missions was its expertise and long history of plutonium production, handling and storage; its support infrastructure; and the fact that it has ongoing, long-term missions (tritium recycling/production and high-level waste processing).

On the other hand, Rocky Flats is shutting down. To accelerate the shutdown and save taxpayers approximately $600 million per year in operating costs, DOE decided to bring all Rocky Flats plutonium to SRS for storage pending disposition.

The shipments are scheduled to begin in October; approximately 2,000 55-gallon drums will be brought to SRS over a 2-year period. The shipments will come by trucks, called Safe, Secure Transports, or SSTs. These look like regular 18-wheelers but have special protection features, travel in guarded convoys and are tracked by satellites."

You don’t want to mess with one of the convoys—if you can find them! Their schedule and route are altered on a regular basis.

If there should be an accident, local authorities will be trained in exactly what to do. Interestingly, these trucks look just like regular 18-wheelers, but law enforcement officers will be given a particular “secret” way of identifying these vehicles. (Some investigative work for the readers, “What does our law enforcement know right now?”)

Common Voice asked Mr. Ford about the dangers of plutonium. Obviously, everyone is concerned about what would happen if someone should become exposed to the metal and how the material will be stored so that we can be reasonably assured that we would not suffer long-term effects.

“Plutonium is a fissile material, which means that a nuclear chain reaction (called a criticality) can occur when a critical mass of the material is assembled in the proper configuration. In addition, it is pyrophoric, which means it will begin to burn if exposed to air.

It emits primarily alpha radiation, which is relatively weak (paper or skin can block it); however, if inhaled or ingested, alpha radiation can penetrate living cell walls, killing or damaging them and increasing the risk of cancer over the long term.

All plutonium to be shipped to SRS will be sealed inside two welded steel cans with overpack inside a steel drum and certified to prevent criticality and be suitable for safe storage until disposition.”

Monday The Upstate Common Voice will offer an opinion on this issue. Politics aside, should we consider plutonium to be good or bad for South Carolina? Have a great weekend!

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