K-Area glovebox area PowerPoint Presentation (copy) (copy)

Employees at the Savannah River Site use a glovebox to handle plutonium at the site's K-Area.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is ready to begin site preparations for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition project at the Savannah River Site, the keystone to the agency's grander dilute-and-dispose campaign.

The preparations have an expected price tag of $28 million, according to the NNSA, including demolition and security modifications at the the site's K-Area, a converted reactor complex that now stores metric tons of plutonium.

The Surplus Plutonium Disposition project – the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility alternative favored by both former U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and current NNSA chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty – demands the installation of new gloveboxes, ventilation, fire protections and other supporting equipment.

Gloveboxes are large, sealed containers used to handle toxic or dangerous materials, like plutonium.

The multibillion-dollar MOX project, never completed and overdue, was canceled in full in October 2018. Termination work there, according to the Energy Department's latest budget documents, will be finished in fiscal year 2021.

Approximately 11.5 metric tons of surplus plutonium remains at the Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken and neighboring New Ellenton and Jackson. One metric ton was moved out of state – half of it went to the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas – before the end of 2019.

"NNSA is accelerating efforts to remove plutonium from South Carolina in keeping with our commitment to the state," said Gordon-Hagerty, who is also the Energy Department's under secretary for nuclear security. "This vital mission will ensure the material can never again be used for nuclear weapons."

Dilute-and-dispose in this case involves taking plutonium, mixing it with other inhibiting materials, packing the mixture into secure containers and trucking those vessels to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico for burial.

The National Nuclear Security Administration signed off on "Critical Decision 1" for the Surplus Plutonium Disposition project late last year. The approval was mentioned at the end of a Jan. 10 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board weekly report. The NNSA later confirmed the matter to the Aiken Standard.

A project, plant or facility is effectively complete and good to go at Critical Decision 4. The Surplus Plutonium Disposition project is very much still in its infancy.

A National Nuclear Security Administration committee approved a cost range of $448 million to $620 million for the disposition project, set to begin operations in earnest in 2028, according to a strategic roadmap, if not sooner.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin