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Thursday, September 06, 2007  
Lab will get rid of excess plutonium

By: Betsy Mason
Published In: Contra Costa Times

? LIVERMORE: DOE officials plan to send 3,000 containers of element to South Carolina facility by 2010

Livermore Lab's surplus plutonium is set to be moved to South Carolina by 2010. The Department of Energy announced plans Wednesday to consolidate 3,000 coffee-can sized canisters of surplus plutonium at its Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

"It's in our best interests, certainly from a security standpoint, to consolidate as much plutonium as possible," said DOE spokesman John Belluardo.

The radioactive element is used to make fission cores for nuclear bombs.

Nearly 700 canisters are at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Belluardo said the majority of that is currently at Los Alamos.

The rest -- about 2,300 canisters -- is located at the DOE's Hanford Site in Washington. The canisters will be moved by "secure transport," the nature and timing of which is classified.

The move is designed to both enhance security and lower costs associated with storage, surveillance and security at the three sites.

The surplus plutonium at Livermore is primarily plutonium oxide, which basically is powdered plutonium rust. It makes up half of all the plutonium at the lab, according to lab spokesman David Schwoegler.

The other half is in metal form and will stay at the lab for research. In December, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the branch of the DOE in charge of the nuclear weapons complex, began moving weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium from Livermore to Los Alamos. All but tiny amounts of plutonium will be removed from Livermore by 2014.

"Consolidating material is one of our main goals to transform the Cold War-era nuclear weapons complex to be even more secure, more efficient and more modern," then-National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks said at the time. "We are taking concrete steps to reduce the number of locations where we process and store significant quantities of nuclear weapons materials."

The surplus plutonium will not stay in South Carolina permanently. Some will be processed at Savannah River and then sold to energy companies as mixed-oxide fuel.

"It's all about finding extra uses for this stuff," a DOE official said.

Not everybody is convinced that the consolidation plan is a good idea.

"We're of course happy any time plutonium is moved out of Livermore, but we're not about to break out the champagne on this one," said Jedidjah De Vries of Livermore watchdog group Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment.

"This plan doesn't have a final resting place for the plutonium," he said. "They're just shuffling around the plutonium with no clear plan. Any time you transport plutonium, it's a dangerous proposition."

Betsy Mason covers science and the national laboratories. Reach her at 925-952-5026 or

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