The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) indicated Monday it will not start disposal of 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-usable plutonium in South Carolina until 2028 — a date by which the agency could accrue more than $1 billion in financial penalties for failing to remove the material from the South Carolina facility.
The semiautonomous Department of Energy cited the schedule for startup of the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project in a chart in the “NNSA Strategic Integrated Roadmap 2020-2044.”
The unfunded, unauthorized Surplus Plutonium Disposition Project, also sometimes called dilute-and-dispose, is the NNSA’s new method of getting rid of the plutonium under an arms-reduction pact signed with Russia in 2000.
The NNSA once planned to dispose of the plutonium by turning it into commercial reactor fuel in Savannah River’s now-canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) — a partially built structure the agency now wants to turn into a factory for fissile nuclear warhead cores called pits.
Under federal law, the NNSA must pay the state of South Carolina a maximum of $100 million annually for every year after Jan. 1, 2016, that the agency fails to remove 1 metric ton of surplus weapon-usable plutonium from the Savannah River Site.
South Carolina in 2016 sued DOE in federal court to collect after the agency ditched the MFFF in favor of dilute-and-dispose — chemically weakening the plutonium, suspending it in an inert material known as stardust, and burying it deep underground at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
In a separate lawsuit in 2017, a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina ordered the NNSA to remove 1 metric ton of the formerly MFFF-bound plutonium from Savannah River. The NNSA folded that metric ton of material back into its weapon-production pipeline and, some time last year, shipped half of that amount to the Nevada National Security Site over Nevada’s loud objections.