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Nuke Plutonium Turned Toward Fuel Production

The Los Alamos National Laboratory has formally delivered 974 pounds of "plutonium oxide feedstock" derived from nuclear-weapon triggers that will eventually be used to produce atomic energy reactor fuel, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration said on Friday.

The material from the New Mexico facility underwent a "rigorous product certification process" before being submitted to the company that is leading construction and eventual activation of a planned plant for production of mixed-oxide reactor fuel at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Feedstock from Los Alamos and the H-Canyon Complex at Savannah River would eventually be combined with depleted uranium for production of MOX fuel.

The fuel would undergo irradiation at nonmilitary nuclear plants, after which the mix would not be viable as atomic-weapon material, the nuclear agency said.

Washington intends to use the MOX production plant to meet its side of a bilateral deal that calls for the United States and Russia to both eliminate no less than 34 metric tons of weapon-usable plutonium. That aggregate amount could otherwise be used to power 17,000 nuclear warheads.

Preparation of plutonium not previously used in nuclear-weapon cores -- or "pits" -- also began in November at the H-Canyon site, according to the release from the semiautonomous Energy Department agency. The complex is ultimately expected to deliver roughly 3.7 metric tons of plutonium oxide feedstock to the MOX plant.

"The progress achieved at LANL and SRS in support of plutonium disposition demonstrates the benefits of utilizing existing facilities in support of NNSA’s efforts to eliminate surplus weapons plutonium,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in prepared comments. “Feedstock for the MOX facility represents a critical component of the U.S. plutonium disposition strategy and will enable the U.S. to meet international nonproliferation commitments while advancing President Obama’s goal of permanently reducing the number of nuclear weapons across the globe.”

The MOX plant has proven controversial, as questions have developed over whether its estimated $4.8 billion price tag is unrealistically low and no commercial atomic energy company has yet agreed to purchase the fuel. The plant is slated to go online in 2016 and to begin converting one-time warhead material into reactor fuel no later than 2018.


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