SRS Sign, Plutonium Update

An entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile nuclear reserve near New Ellenton.

The U.S. Department of Energy is still certain it can satisfy a Savannah River Site plutonium removal order, according to newly filed documents.

In a report submitted to a federal court on Thursday, the DOE explained it "remains confident" in its ability to get a total 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium out of SRS and South Carolina, more broadly.

The DOE has until 2020 to do so, per a December 2017 ruling made by U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs.

"The department has devoted significant resources and attention to complying with the court's injunctive order while at the same time ensuring that the removal of defense plutonium occurs as safely as possible in compliance with all applicable laws," the update states.

One half-metric ton has already been moved to the Nevada National Security Site, a clandestine campaign that, upon reveal, roiled lawmakers and upended a related lawsuit.

The progress report – the DOE's third – acknowledges the SRS-to-NNSS plutonium shipments, which were handled prior to November 2018, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration's general counsel, Bruce Diamond.

The NNSA is a semiautonomous slice of the Energy Department. The agency operates at SRS.

The remaining half-metric ton is bound for the Pantex Plant in Texas or Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to the progress report, which is reinforced by a July 2018 environmental analysis. No more of the 1 metric ton will go to Nevada, according to both the report and an earlier declaration made by Diamond.

Pantex has been readying to receive defense plutonium from the Palmetto State since at least Feb. 15, according to independent oversight documents and related, confirming comments from the NNSA.

The total 1 metric ton of plutonium slated for removal is flagged for future weapons use. More specifically, the metric ton will be used for plutonium pit production.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores.

"This material will ultimately be used for vital national security missions and is not waste," reads a letter written by William "Ike" White, who at the time was the NNSA chief of staff. The letter was sent to Nevada leaders.

The DOE in its report would not disclose any further information about the half-metric ton ostensibly still in South Carolina.

"Details about the status of the remaining plutonium cannot be provided on a public docket at this time, as those details remain classified, and will continue to be classified until a sufficient time passes after the end of the shipping campaign," the court filing reads.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin