Following a five-month pause, plutonium downblending resumed in mid-March at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The mission involves dilution of 6 metric tons of nuclear weapon-usable, non-pit plutonium, and not the 34 metric tons of material intended to be processed by Savannah River’s MOX program.
Operations began in September 2016, overseen by site management and operations contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS). Facilities at K Area apply inhibitor materials to decrease the potency of the plutonium, eliminating its ability to power nuclear weapons. For now, the downblended material is stored on site, but it will eventually be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., for permanent disposal.
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions had downblended about 16 kilograms, or 0.016 metric tons, before work was stopped in October 2017 to allow personnel to perform planned destructive examinations of storage containers. Destructive examinations are analysis techniques used to evaluate the properties of materials, components, or systems to ensure safe storage of the material, DOE Savannah River spokesman Monte Volk said by email.
It is was not immediately clear how much has been downblended since the restart, but the site is expected to downblend 30 kilograms in this fiscal year, Volk said. Fiscal 2018 ends on Sept. 30.
The downblending mission is expected to last until 2046. It is unclear how much it will cost, but funding comes from the site’s nuclear materials line item. “We are working on future-year cost projections for downblending, but we do not have those figures at this time,” Volk wrote.