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Friday, December 11, 2009 - 1:39pm

Nuclear Warhead Pits May Come to Augusta Area

Federal officials are pursuing the Savannah River Site as the location for two controversial projects that would bring the pits, or cores, of U.S. nuclear warheads -- and several tons of plutonium -- to the Augusta area. The decision means the federal government is moving closer to transporting the plutonium from Texas to SRS -- possibly through Georgia -- and then storing it there until it can be converted into nuclear fuel for commercial power plants.

Supporters say the projects are a crucial part of nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Environmental groups argue it's dangerous.

The U.S. Department of Energy has for years been considering SRS, a massive federal entity near Augusta that processes nuclear materials, as the location for the projects.

But on November 22, U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman approved "pursuing" the combination of both projects in the same location at the site, according to Jennifer Wagner, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of DOE. One project would be the disassembly of plutonium from the pits and the preparation of it -- converting it to an oxide form -- to be processed into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors at a new plant under construction at SRS. The other would be the preparation of plutonium that was never placed in weapons. That plutonium would also be used in the plant, known as the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Poneman's decision stops short of a final go-ahead for the two projects, but it's a major step toward bringing both to SRS.

DOE officials will now study the projects to arrive at a proposed cost and timeline for operations there, Wagner said. A final decision will be made afterward. Officials do not know how long the study will take.

Combining the two projects would likely save money and cut down on transportation of the plutonium.

Environmental groups are blasting Poneman's decision, saying it would cause safety threats since the plutonium would be shipped across the country -- and possibly through Georgia -- to the site. They also oppose storage of the plutonium at the site, which federal officials say would be temporary.

Wagner would not comment on how much plutonium would be transported to SRS, saying it was classified information. But officials from Shaw Areva MOX Services previously have said the fuel fabrication facility would process about 34 metric tons of plutonium. About two-thirds of the plutonium would come from the warhead pits in Texas. The rest includes plutonium already located at SRS, as well as national laboratories in California and New Mexico.

Wagner would not say what route -- if any -- had been determined for the plutonium shipments, although SRS is located just across the state border in South Carolina. She also declined to comment on how the plutonium would be transported, saying only that it would come via the Department of Energy's Secure Transportation System. The system transports nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in both commercial and government trucks accompanied by armed federal agents.

The MOX project is also controversial. Supporters of the MOX plant say it provides yet another resource for energy while contributing to nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Opponents say the MOX project is too expensive and dangerous; they also have expressed skepticism over whether the fuel will work in the reactors.

The $4.8 billion plant is DOE's most expensive project.

The Savannah River Site is a major employer in the Augusta area. The site for decades produced plutonium and other materials used in nuclear weapons, from the 1950s until the 1990s. The site's functions now include the management of nuclear materials, the processing of tritium, the decommissioning and closure of nuclear production facilities at the site and nuclear waste management.

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