The Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced that it achieved significant milestones in two programs: a project to convert weapons-grade fissile material to nuclear fuel for power stations and the cleanup of a former U.S. nuclear weapons facility site.
As part of the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Blend-Down Program, South Carolina’s Savannah River Site in mid-July sent its first shipment of low-enriched uranium—converted from excess weapons-grade, HEU—to Nuclear Fuel Services in Tennessee. There, the uranium will be converted into fuel that will be used for civilian energy purposes at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama. The project will continue through 2007.
In addition, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced August 19 that Rocky Flats, the former plutonium trigger production site near Denver, sent out its last shipment of fissile material as part of its shutdown process. Manufacturing of plutonium pits—which trigger detonation of a thermonuclear weapon—ended at the site in 1989 after it was deemed an environmental hazard and shut down. Initial studies estimated that cleanup and closure would take up to 65 years, but in 1995 the DOE and its contractors established an accelerated schedule due to the potential danger posed by the large amount of plutonium at the site and its proximity to a heavily populated area.
Plutonium from Rocky Flats is being shipped to Savannah River Site, where it will later be converted into fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. Despite political wrangling between Abraham and South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges (D) over shipping Rocky Flats’ plutonium to Savannah River Site in 2002, the Rocky Flats site is on track to be completely closed down by 2006. (See ACT, May 2002.)