Hotly radioactive uranium could soon be shipped across country

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - The U.S. Department of Energy could begin shipping stocks of hotly radioactive and fissionable uranium to Nevada in early 2013, although the exact dates apparently will be kept secret for safety and security reasons.

A federal spokesman said the agency would not discuss when the shipments leave Oak Ridge National Laboratory or address the status of those shipments until the work has been completed.

The shipments to Nevada are part of a half-billion-dollar program to dispose of a stockpile of Uranium-233 that's been housed at ORNL for decades in an old building once associated with the lab's work on the World War II Manhattan Project.

Extra security is required because of the fissile material's potential use in nuclear bombs.

In an interview earlier this fall, DOE's Environmental Manager Mark Whitney said DOE would like to start those shipments in early 2013 if the necessary approvals have been reached. More recently, DOE released a statement to the News Sentinel, saying, "All approvals to ship are not yet in place, but we expect approval soon."

The Nevada-bound material is old reactor fuel, which contains fissionable U-233 and U-235, as well as a significant presence of super-hot U-232.

There are several types of U-233 materials stored in ORNL's Building 3019, but the stuff that's being shipped to the Nevada National Security Site is known as CEUSP -- Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project -- a 1980s project that processed the radioactive materials for storage.

DOE confirmed there are 403 canisters, with about 2.6 kilograms of uranium in each. The radiation at the exterior of the containers is about 300 rads per hour, a high-hazard level, although DOE said the container's sleeve offers some shielding and has reduced the radiation field by about half.

Robert Alvarez of the Institute of Policy Studies released a paper earlier this year criticizing the government's plans for disposing of the U-233 materials, especially the CEUSP disposal in Nevada that he said raises proliferation and nuclear safety concerns. He suggested the government would have to waive its own rules in order to bury the nuclear materials in the desert landfill.

Whitney emphasized that DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration are not seeking a waiver of requirements or any exemptions in order to dispose of the containers of uranium.

"The CEUSP material meets the waste acceptance criteria," he said. Whitney said some aspects of the waste rules had to be evaluated closely for the project, but he said that was done properly and posed no problem. "All of that analysis has come back positive," he said.

The DOE official said the CEUSP containers would be buried at a depth greater than 40 feet, underneath another layer of radioactive waste. That apparently is a protective strategy being used because of the material's bomb-making potential.

Whitney said the materials are highly radioactive because of the U-232 contamination associated with the uranium fuel, which was processed and put into monolith forms years ago.

"During the solidification campaign in the mid-1980s, the uranyl nitrate solution was 'denitrified' at 800 degrees centigrade for several hours, which yielded the ceramic-like U3O8 monoliths bonded to the inside of the containers," DOE said.

Because of the material's form and burial location it would be very difficult for any intruder to gain access to it or do anything with it, Whitney said.

"I think it is a safe and secure operation for disposing of this material," Whitney said, noting that the location where it's being buried will always be a property of the U.S. government.

(Reach reporter Frank Munger at mungerf@knoxnews.com.)

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