Weapon-grade plutonium shipped cross-country

Published 9 January 2008

The Department of Energy plans to scale down U.S. nuclear weapons program by consolidating special nuclear materials — read: weapon-grade material — at five federal sites by the end of 2012 and reducing the square footage and staff within those sites by 2017; nuclear materials will have to be shipped from different labs around the country to these five sites

Back in the day they told a joke that went like this: Question: How do you know this is not going to be your day? Answer: You drive to work in the morning, and then, just as you find yourself driving behind a goup of Hell’s Angels on motorcycles, you inadvertently hit your car’s horn — and the horn gets stuck. You can tell this joke today, but instead of finding yourself driving behind a group of aging motorcyclists, how about driving behind a convoy carrying radioactive plutonium? It can happen. The latest shipment of nuclear weapons grade plutonium from a national laboratory in California recently arrived safely at the Savannah River Site (SRS), federal officials revealed Monday. The cross-country shipment from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory arrived under “high security,” according to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a unit within the U.S. Department of Energy. The shipment is part of plans to consolidate all surplus non-pit plutonium at SRS where the excess material is to be turned into fuel at the future mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility.

Construction on the MOX plant began in August of last year and, according to the NNSA, the project is now 25 percent complete. The shipments are part of an accelerated effort announced last month by the NNSA to remove nuclear material from the California national lab by 2012, two years ahead of the initial plan when the first plutonium shipment left the site in 2006. Similar actions are currently under way at other nuclear weapons complex sites, including the removal of weapons materials from Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. “There is too much nuclear weapons material stored at too many different sites around the country,” said Thomas D’Agostino, NNSA’s top official. “One of my top priorities has been to speed up the consolidation of NNSA’s material, and we are doing that. Our consolidation efforts will reduce security costs and are an integral part of transforming the U.S. nuclear weapons complex to one that is smaller, safe, more secure and more efficient.”

The plan is part of the NNSA’s recently announced decision to scale down the nation’s nuclear weapons program by consolidating special nuclear materials at five federal sites by the end of 2012 and reducing the square footage and staff within those sites by 2017. The plan calls for as much as a 30 percent reduction in staff for the federal nuclear weapons program over the next decade. At SRS, however, the reduction is expected to be about 5 percent, which is less than the typical attrition rate for the site. There are no significant proposed changes to the site’s infrastructure.