CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - The U.S. government plans to designate six metric tons of surplus plutonium now stored in South Carolina as waste and ship it to a storage facility in New Mexico, according to a preliminary notice filed on a federal website on Wednesday.
The notice, to be posted on Thursday by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), says its "preferred alternative" for disposal of the six metric tons of surplus plutonium would be to turn it into nuclear waste and store it in New Mexico.
Critics said the notice was a sign that DOE could decide to scrap a multibillion-dollar project in South Carolina that will mix 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium with uranium to form safer fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors.
The facility, begun under a 2000 treaty with Russia to dispose of nuclear weapons, is years overdue and billions of dollars over budget. It is being built by CBI-Areva MOX Services, a joint venture of U.S.-based Chicago Bridge & Iron NV and Areva SA, a French state-owned nuclear group.
"This decision is a fatal blow to the mismanaged MOX project at the (Savannah River Site) as it will set the precedent that plutonium is waste and not a commercial product to be used as nuclear fuel," said Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, a public interest organization based in Columbia, South Carolina.
A National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman said the notice pertained to only six of 13.1 tons of surplus plutonium addressed in a recent environment impact statement, and did not signal a change in DOE's plans for disposal of the 34 metric tons of plutonium.
In the notice, DOE said moving the waste to New Mexico was part of U.S. policy of ensuring "that surplus plutonium is never used in a nuclear weapon, and to remove surplus plutonium from the state of South Carolina."
DOE says it is continuing work on MOX, but officials say several analyses have shown diluting the plutonium covered under the treaty with Russia, and disposing of it in New Mexico would cost less than half of the MOX approach.
Russia has its own program to eliminate its reciprocal 34 metric tons of plutonium under the treaty.
A fiscal 2016 spending bill enacted this month includes $340 million for continued construction of the MOX project, and bans use of the funds for dilution of any plutonium that could be used for MOX.
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Sandra Maler)