June 9, 2000

Russian Machine Puts Out the Wash with U.S. Plutonium

LIVERMORE, Calif. - The Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently purchased a plutonium-oxide saltwasher from the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Atomic Reactors. The purchase is part of U.S.-Russian Joint Plutonium Disposition activities. Once installed in the Laboratory's Plutonium Facility, the equipment will provide a quicker and more efficient method to prepare U.S. plutonium for immobilization.

The equipment will wash plutonium oxides free of contaminating chloride salts. These salts hinder the ceramification process that immobilizes excess weapons plutonium so it can be encased in canisters, sealed and stored until disposal in a repository.
While the chloride salts are removed inside the machine, other contaminants are left behind deliberately, making the plutonium less attractive for proliferation.

In the past, Livermore relied on a more conventional system-a series of beakers and flasks to wash, filter and dry plutonium. While there was nothing wrong with the old system, the plutonium-oxide saltwasher accomplishes all three tasks in one machine, in less time and with less radiation exposure.

"This is the first known piece of plutonium processing equipment from Russia slated to be used for our own plutonium operations," said the Lab's Les Jardine, the Russian-projects manager for fissile materials. The RIAR-designed and fabricated, stainless steel and titanium system will fit inside a glovebox.

"We think this will be a big help," said Mark Bronson, the Livermore associate program leader for plutonium processing. "It's an automated system, which means it will be faster and more efficient then our own current methods."

Bronson and Jardine discovered the machine in May 1999 while touring a RIAR plutonium facility in Dimitrograd as part of the collaborative work on U.S.-Russia Joint Plutonium Disposition.

Jardine currently manages more than 30 contracts with Russian organizations. He said this collaboration indicates "the level of commitment, technical expertise and quality control that exists in Russia. This equipment shows that their technical people are very competent, capable and very dedicated to efficiently handling the plutonium fissile materials," he said.

Once treated, the plutonium would be immobilized in a ceramic matrix roughly the size and shape of a hockey puck. Twenty such disks, each containing about 50 grams of plutonium, would then be sealed in cans and placed in a canister filled with glass containing highly radioactive waste. The canisters will be shipped to the national high-level waste repository, possibly Yucca Mountain.

The Lawrence Livermore has the national lead in DOE's research development and testing of plutonium disposition by immobilization. The Lab hopes saltwasher can be part of the national effort to treat and immobilize 13 metric tons of plutonium from Rocky Flats, Hanford and other sites. The work will be conducted in a facility to be built at Savannah River.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a multi-disciplinary, national security laboratory that applies science and technology to the important issues of our time. The Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.