Enough Plutonium to Send Us All Back to the Future

Enough Plutonium to Send Us All Back to the Future
South Carolina (USA) flag waving on the wind

Secretary of Energy Brouillette and South Carolina officials announced an agreement between the current administration and the state of South Carolina. This agreement has been a long time coming.

“The Trump Administration is committed to tackling our nation’s toughest challenges where previous Administrations have failed, including the removal and disposal of Cold War era plutonium from the State of South Carolina,” said Secretary Brouillette. “Today’s announcement is a promise to the people of South Carolina that plutonium will be removed safely from this state while saving the American taxpayers over $1 billion. I thank Attorney General Wilson, Governor McMaster, and other South Carolina leaders who have been strong partners with DOE to get us to this day. This historic agreement could not have been possible without the leadership and support of President Trump and Attorney General Barr. This is a good day for South Carolina.”

Behind schedule and over-budget

It started with the ending of the Cold War. The U.S. Department of Energy needed a place to send now unwanted weapons-grade plutonium. The idea was to send it to South Carolina and have it modified for use in nuclear power plants. A facility would have to be built called a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOX). In 2002, because the facility was not yet completed, legislation was passed to assure either the removal of the plutonium or the completion of the facility by a specific date or reparations would have to be paid to the state.

In 2018 former-secretary Perry and the Trump administration decided to terminate the construction of the facility. By that time, it was $13 billion over budget and 32 years behind schedule. Even for a government program, that seems pretty bad. 

South Carolina has been trying to be rid of the plutonium for years

South Carolina had seen the writing on the wall, and back during the Obama administration, they sued the DOE for not adhering to the 2002 legislation. It is only now, in 2020, that an agreement has at last been reached. 

The DOE had a deadline of January 1, 2022, to remove the 9.5 metric tons of plutonium stored at the Savanna River site. The decision was made to use the “dilute and dispose” method to get rid of the plutonium. Unfortunately, this safe and effective method is extremely time-consuming. The DOE would not be making that 2022 deadline. With the chosen method, removal would be complete sometime in 2049. That’s only 27 years behind schedule. Really, considering the original project was 32 years behind schedule, it’s an improvement. Fortunately, the new agreement reached at the end of August extends the DOE’s window of removal. The new deadline is 2037, putting them just 12 years behind schedule. Impressive. The agreement also calls for $600 million to be paid to South Carolina upfront. In 2037, the DOE will pay a percentage of late fees based on how much plutonium is left in the state by that time.  

Next stop, New Mexico

Much of the plutonium will travel to New Mexico, and it will undergo the “dilute and dispose” method there. Some of the plutonium, around half a metric ton, was shipped to Nevada sometime before 2018, without any officials in Nevada being made aware. But that is another story. You can read more about it here.


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