In support of NNSA surplus plutonium disposition program

Los Alamos meets deadline for plutonium oxide packaging and shipping to France

From October 2001 to June 2004, Los Alamos researchers purified plutonium oxide for use in fabrication of mixed oxide (MOX) lead assemblies. This work was conducted in support of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Fissile Materials Disposition (NA-26) surplus plutonium disposition program. This program is part of a major U.S./Russian bilateral effort to dispose of surplus weapons materials. The lead assembly effort required negotiations and close coordination among the governments of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan, as well as the involvement of the European Commission. Many agencies within these governments and numerous U.S. and international contractor organizations participated in the lead assembly effort.

An FS-47 container.

At the time operations were suspended at Los Alamos on July 16, 2004, purification of the material had been completed, and the material had been placed into DOE Standard 3013 containers for shipment to France, where the lead assemblies were to be fabricated. Work remaining to be done consisted primarily of packaging the 3013 containers into Nuclear Regulatory Commission- and Department of Transportation-approved Type B shipping packages designed and fabricated in France, and loading the packages onto DOE Office of Science and Technology (OST) trucks for shipment off site. Arrangements for other steps in the shipping process (OST transport, ocean transport, and land transport in France) were dependent on Los Alamos completing the first part of the shipping process as scheduled.

Shipment of the material from Los Alamos was time critical because the facility in France at which the lead assemblies were fabricated will be completely shut down soon. If the material was not received in France on the committed schedule, there would not be sufficient time to fabricate the assemblies before shut down of the facility begins. In this event, lead assemblies would not be available until the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility to be constructed at Savannah River is operational. This would delay implementation of the U.S. plutonium disposition effort by three to five years, increase the cost of the U.S. program by $1 billion, place the viability of the bilateral program in jeopardy, and compromise U.S. credibility in this and other nonproliferation programs. There were no other alternatives available to NNSA. If the material did not leave Los Alamos on schedule, severe programmatic impacts would have resulted.

Accordingly, the plutonium oxide packaging and shipping activities were separated from other Laboratory activities and were made the focus of an intense readiness verification process before resumption of the work. Working closely with the staff of the NNSA Los Alamos Site Office, Los Alamos staff from six divisions prepared and reviewed procedures, authorization-basis documents, training documentation, and other documents to support this effort.

Because of this detailed preparation effort, as well as the dedication of many Los Alamos staff members, the plutonium oxide packaging and shipping effort was completed on schedule and was conducted safely, securely, and in compliance with all relevant requirements. Fabrication of the lead assemblies was completed in France in early March of this year, and the assemblies will be returned to the U.S. on time for insertion and testing in a commercial nuclear reactor. This effort demonstrates Los Alamos' ability to combine excellence in conduct of operations with excellence in science and engineering.

This article was contributed by Randy Erickson and David Alberstein of the Nuclear Materials Technology Division.

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