The Department of Energy is not publicly discussing the progress of conversion of highly enriched uranium shipped from Canada at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, including whether the project remains on track to be completed in April.
Multiple questions sent via email last week to the department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) received the same response from spokesman Craig Branson: “DOE/NNSA cannot comment on ongoing campaigns.”
Those questions included how much many shipments and/or gallons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) the Savannah River Site received since the program began in April 2017. Branson also couldn’t confirm if processing would be completed within the three-year estimate given prior to that date.
The HEU shipments are part of a 2010 agreement signed by then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Between 100 and 150 shipments are needed to truck the 6,000 gallons of material 1,176 miles from the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario to the 310-square-mile DOE site near Aiken, S.C.
The weapon-usable uranium is of U.S. origin, but it is unclear how and where it was used, and why Canada received the material. At Savannah River’s H Canyon, the uranium is converted into low-enriched uranium. From there, it is being temporarily stored on-site until the mission is complete. Then, it will be sent to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to power commercial nuclear reactors.
Branson also was not able to provide details on the cost of the conversion program. “Canada is paying for this mission but does not share all financial data with DOE/NNSA. As such, we are unaware of the full costs of this effort,” he said by email. “Canada is one of DOE/NNSA’s most dedicated partners and this project directly supports the United States and Canada’s shared goals of minimizing nuclear material and improving nuclear security.”
Prior to the start of the mission, seven environmental groups, as well as members of Congress, warned the HEU transport was a high-risk venture. The truck route to SRS starts at the Ontario facility and goes over the Peace Bridge and through western New York on its way south to SRS. The Energy Department conducts the shipments.
In August 2016, Beyond Nuclear, SRS Watch, and several other anti-nuclear groups filed a lawsuit, accusing the federal government of not taking necessary safety precautions before authorizing the shipments. The anti-nuclear groups sought a pause on shipments, and requested DOE conduct an environmental assessment on the transport of the material. A federal judge ruled in February 2017 that DOE had met all of its safety obligations.