Tag Archives: nuclear materials

Demise: nuclear plutonium alive

South Carolina is suing the U.S. government to recover $100 million in fines it says the Department of Energy owes the state for failing to remove one metric ton of plutonium stored there.  The lawsuit was filed on August 7, 2017.

Congress approved fines of $1 million per day for the first 100 days of each year through 2021, beginning 2016, if the weapons-grade plutonium was not removed from the Savannah River Site at the state’s border with Georgia, the attorney general’s office said.   The federal government cannot break its obligations and “leave South Carolina as the permanent dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium” said in the complaint.

Built in the 1950s, the U.S.-owned Savannah River Site processes and stores nuclear materialss.  A U.S. treaty with Russia in 2000 [The Plutonium Disposition Agreement]* required each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, left over from the Cold War.

The United States began building a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as the MOX project, at the Savannah River Site to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium to form safer fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.  But the project is years overdue and billions over budget, and the technology for the new fuel fabrication is not fully developed. Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2016 pulled out of the plutonium pact amid rising tensions over Ukraine and Syria.  The Trump administration proposed in the fiscal year 2018 budget to scrap the project and pursue diluting the plutonium and disposing it underground, an alternative called for by the Obama administration.

Excerpts from   Harriet McLeod, South Carolina seeks $100 million from U.S. over plutonium removal, Reuters,  Aug. 9, 2017

*through which the United States and Russia agreed to immobilize 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

Dirty Bomb Defused: the 2013 theft of nuclear materials

mexico nuclear theft

Authorities on December 5, 2013 recovered dangerous radioactive material from a cancer-treating medical device that was on a stolen truck and abandoned in a field, the interior ministry said.  It was in a capsule of two centimeters in diameter and authorities are now trying to isolate it safely before taking it to its original destination at a waste storage facility, the ministry said in a statement.The radioactive cobalt-60 source, which is considered “extremely dangerous” by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was originally inside a device that was in a steel-reinforced box in the truck.

The material was found in the town of Hueypoxtla about one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the truck, which the driver said was stolen by two gunmen at a service station on Monday.  The theft raised concerns about health risks while experts warned that the quantity of cobalt-60 — 60 grams — was enough to build a crude “dirty bomb,” though it was possible the thieves were only after the truck.

The United States said its national security team had monitored the situation “very closely” and that President Barack Obama was briefed throughout the day on December 4, 2013  as the search was on for the missing material.  “We also took appropriate precautionary steps along our shared border with Mexico,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.  The National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said a family found the open medical device and brought it inside their home.  “We will have to keep this family under medical watch for the sole reason of being near a certain distance from the source,” CNSNS operations director Mardonio Jimenez told Milenio television, without specifying how many members were in the family.

Authorities have warned that whoever removed the radioactive material by hand was probably contaminated and could soon die. Authorities were still looking for the thieves.They said it is not clear if they are the ones who opened the box.  But Jimenez sought to reassure residents in the 40,000-population town of Hueypoxtla.  “The source is far from the population,” he said. “There is a security operation to keep them from getting near it.”

The official blamed the transport company for the incident, saying it had acted with “negligence” by not having a security escort with the truck. The device was driven from a hospital in the northwestern city of Tijuana.  The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency also said the Mexican public “is safe and will remain safe.”  The IAEA said it had been informed by the CNSNS that the cobalt-60 was found to have been removed from its shielding “but there is no indication that it has been damaged or broken up and no sign of contamination to the area.”

The UN agency said that if not securely protected, the 60 grams of material “would be likely to cause permanent injury to a person who handled it or who was otherwise in contact with it for more than a few minutes.”  “It would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour,” it said.  The IAEA added, however, that people exposed to the radioactive substance “do not represent a contamination risk to others.”  The incident was a reminder of the dangers posed by the huge amounts of nuclear material in hospitals and industry around the world if they are not handled properly and with sufficient security.  In particular, there are fears that extremists could steal the material and put it in a so-called dirty bomb — an explosive device spreading radioactivity over a wide area and sparking mass panic.

Mexico recovers radioactive waste that was on stolen truck, Agence France Presse, Dec. 6, 2013

Nuclear Medicine and NonProliferation

The National Nuclear Security Administration has signed a cooperative agreement with a medical material supplier to develop technology that can produce molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), an important, but potentially-dangerous material used in medical procedures.The NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative signed the agreement with NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, LLC, to further the development of accelerator-based technology to produce molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) in the U.S.

The cooperative agreement between NNSA and NorthStar, which totals $4.6 million and is funded under a 50 percent/50 percent cost-share arrangement, will accelerate the development of the NorthStar technology to produce Mo-99 without proliferation-sensitive highly enriched uranium (HEU), said the agency. The agreement would also support the goal of ensuring a reliable domestic supply of this critical medical isotope for U.S. patients, it said. Supplies of the less dangerous, HEU-deficient, Mo-99 had been coming from companies in South Africa and Australia since last summer.

NNSA said it has partnered with four domestic commercial entities to accelerate the establishment of a diverse, reliable supply of Mo-99 within the United States that is not produced with HEU. NNSA also works with international producers to assist in the conversion of their Mo-99 production facilities from the use of HEU targets to LEU targets, as part of its Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s mission to minimize and eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications worldwide, including in research reactors and medical isotope production facilities.

The United States currently does not have a domestic production capability for Mo-99 and must import 100 percent of its supply from foreign producers, most of which use HEU in their production processes, said NNSA. Over the past few years, technical difficulties and shutdowns at the major Mo-99 production facilities have caused severe supply shortages, which have greatly impacted the availability of Mo-99 to the medical community, it said. The Mo-99 produced by NorthStar would provide additional reliability for the U.S. supply.

Mark Rockwell. NNSA to co-produce medical radioisotope with another U.S. company, Government Security News, Nov. 2, 2011