March 23, 2014
“Special Nuclear Materials” Shipped from Europe to Charleston, South Carolina in Advance of Nuclear Security Summit
Was Canadian Plutonium from Belgium and Italy on UK-Flagged Pacific Egret?
What is Disposition Pathway for any Plutonium Transported to US DOE’s Savannah River Site?
On February 6 and March 19, 2014, secret shipments of what is believed to be “special nuclear material” - highly enriched uranium and plutonium - were brought into the United States via the port of Charleston, South Carolina on the UK-flagged vessel Pacific Egret. The shipments are part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) program to recover weapons-usable materials of both US-origin and origin from other countries.
The shipment arriving on February 6 was believed to contain material from both Belgium and the Netherlands and the shipment of March 19 is believed to be from Italy. Information about the shipments is based on publicly available information only. Arrival dates are known but the contents of the shipments is speculative, underscoring the need for the NNSA to reveal exactly what was on the shipments, including amounts of materials, where it is now being stored, country of origin and planned disposition.
While details of what was on the shipments is not known, in the “Highlights of Achievements and Commitments by Participating States as stated in National Progress Reports and National Statements” from the Seoul summit in 2012, Belgium stated that its goal was “Repatriating unneeded HEU and separated plutonium to the US” and Italy stated that it was “Working to repatriate excess HEU and plutonium to the US by the 2014 Summit.” It is believed that the highly enriched uranium may be of U.S. origin but the plutonium may be owned by other countries, with Canada a leading contender.
NNSA officials have acknowledged receipt of my questions about the shipments but so far have refused to answer them. This is troubling in that after such shipments have concluded there is little reason from a security perspective not to reveal the nature of the shipments. It appears that officials are withholding the release of any information about the shipments as they want to use them for political purposes at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24-25, 2014. Likewise, Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) has refused for well over a month to answer questions about the February 6 shipment and appears to be stalling in its response until after the Nuclear Security Summit has concluded.
Receipt of spent research reactor and medical isotope reactor fuel containing US-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) in to Charleston, South Carolina - via the Naval Weapons Station - occurs a couple of times a year, with the spent fuel being shipped via rail to the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, where it is stored in a pool in the old L-Reactor. While the receipt of the spent HEU fuel has been accepted from a nuclear non-proliferation perspective, its reprocessing in the aging H-Canyon reprocessing plant at SRS is of concern as it adds additional high-level waste into a waste system already under financial and technical strain.
Unirradiated HEU that may have been received on February 6 and March 19 make have been taken by special trucks to the DOE's HEU storage facility at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
If plutonium was on the shipments of February 6 and March 19, it is unknown where the plutonium would be stored, but it is likely that such plutonium would be taken to SRS. The site already has around 13 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium and it appears that non-U.S-origin plutonium, including from the commercial fuel cycle has been received at SRS. A shipment in May 2012 of Swedish plutonium to the US likely went to SRS but NNSA is still refusing to reveal where the material is being stored and what its disposition pathway might be. (See NNSA’s “Plutonium Removal from Sweden: Fact Sheet”: http://nnsa.energy.gov/mediaroom/factsheets/sweden)
Although little reported, according to a February 3, 2000 personal letter to me from Canada’s Atomic Energy Control Board (now the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission), Canada sent commercial spent fuel from the now-closed Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station to Belgium’s Eurochemic reprocessing plant, where reprocessing of most of that fuel took place from 1968-1974. Some of the resulting plutonium may have been sold to France’s Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA). Canada also shipped spent CANDU fuel from the Pickering nuclear power plant to Italy’s EUREX reprocessing plant, where reprocessing took place from 1980-1983.
Both of the above-named reprocessing plants have been closed for many years and authorities at those facilities will not say what became of the separated Canadian plutonium. Thus, it is possible that the shipments on the Pacific Egret could have contained Canadian plutonium that had been separated in Belgium and Italy.
According to the AECB letter, spent fuel from the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment was reprocessed at the B-204 reprocessing plant at Sellafield and plutonium from that campaign appears to have been returned to Canada. Not all the spent fuel was reprocessed and may now face a disposal problem for the UK. Canada may have also shipped spent fuel the THORP reprocessing plant but it appears that reprocessing of that material may not have taken place. There is no indication at the current time that plutonium or reprocessed spent fuel is now being returned from Sellafield to North America.
If Canadian-origin plutonium has been brought to the United States, it is unknown if it would have been taken over land to Canada or taken to SRS. If the plutonium did go to SRS - possibly under a secret ownership agreement with the US - then South Carolina must be informed of that and what the disposition pathway out of South Carolina is for that material. The massive failure of DOE’s $30-billion plutonium fuel (MOX) program at SRS has underscored that there is currently no pathway out of the state for stored weapons plutonium and adding commercial plutonium to the stockpile only exacerbates the plutonium problem for both DOE and South Carolina.
If the Pacific Egret carried plutonium owned by a country other than Canada, then the amounts, country of origin and disposition pathways must be revealed.
In any event, Canada must live up to international nuclear non-proliferation norms and fully account for the fate of its entire plutonium stockpile, which may be on the order of 40 kilograms.
Photos of the Pacific Egret can be provided on request. Documentation about Canada’s role in reprocessing in Italy, Belgium and the UK can also be provided on request.
Director, SRS Watch