Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2020-2021
In late August, the Energy Department (DOE) announced that it would dilute 9.5 metric tonnes of waste plutonium at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina and ship it 1,400 miles to a military dumpsite in New Mexico. The DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, is an accident-plagued repository, licensed to store plutonium-contaminated radioactive waste left at 22 nuclear weapons production sites. The “downblended” weapons plutonium at Savanah River is typically shipped in “TRUPACT-II” containers made of multilayered stainless-steel. Up to three TRUPACT-II cans are hauled by a single semi-trailer truck. Shipment routes and a timeline for shipments will not be made public.
Plutonium is often referred to as the most deadly substance known to science. If ingested, even the tiniest amount of plutonium will continually bombard surrounding tissue with alpha particles greatly increasing the risk of various cancers. After dilution, the SRS plutonium waste is declared “below weapons grade” and would require extensive processing to be made into a nuclear weapon.
While the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration produced a Risk and Opportunity Analysis Report to assess potential transport dangers, the National Academies of Science said not all risks were “sufficiently captured and reviewed—especially in terms of health and safety.” The NAS report also noted that the number of shipments between Savannah River and WIPP will be far greater than from any other plutonium waste site.
Tom Clements, the director of Savanah River Site Watch, said, “While today’s announcement may sound good, SRS lacks down-blending [diluting] capacity and there is no schedule for the removal of the plutonium from SRS.” The current timeline projects that the plutonium will not be completely removed until 2049.