By Michael Smith
It will take the U.S. Department of Energy at least eight years to downblend 1 metric ton of defense plutonium, far short of the two years demanded by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, according to court records filed Aug. 11.
“Plutonium downblending is currently funded at a rate that would remove one metric ton from South Carolina by the end of fiscal year 2025,” court records state.
Henry Allen Gunter, a plutonium program manager for the DOE, made the statement in a declaration filed as part of the ongoing lawsuit over MOX, the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County.
The affidavit was filed after a federal judge ordered the DOE to develop a statement explaining how it would remove 1 metric ton of defense plutonium from SRS
Judge J. Michelle Childs issued the order amid delays from the DOE in developing the statement.
Childs previously ruled 1 metric ton of plutonium per year must be removed from SRS because MOX isn’t finished. MOX is about 75 percent finished and would convert defense plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors.
But in making the argument for why defense plutonium can’t be easily downblended and shipped, Gunter’s affidavit apparently also infers downblending is a considerably slower method of disposing defense plutonium than MOX.
MOX is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, making it a popular target for some federal lawmakers and President Donald Trump, who say downblending is cheaper.
Despite delays, the MOX project is scheduled for completion sometime in 2029, according to contractor estimates. Even conservative federal estimates place completion in the 2040s.
Gunter, the DOE employee, said in court records there’s no way 1 metric ton of defense plutonium can be removed from SRS within two years.
“South Carolina’s proposal … for one metric ton to be removed within two years, or any date sooner than DOE’s projected date of FY 2025 is not feasible or safe,” the filing states.
A U.S. nuclear deal with Russia called for each side to dispose of 34 metric tons. It would take 272 years to ship 34 metric tons at the pace mapped out in court documents.
Russia has since suspended participation in the accord, citing delays in MOX.