It’s Time to Pull the Plug on the MOX “Factory to Nowhere”

, senior scientist | February 16, 2011, 17:20 pm EST
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Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have turned their budget ax to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) program for nuclear nonproliferation activities, proposing a cut of $602 million below the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2011 (FY 2011) budget request. Many observers in the security community have been rightly incensed about these proposed cuts, which would squeeze vital nonproliferation and counter-terrorism programs that provide direct and near-term benefits for American security, including the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which works to secure nuclear materials around the world.

However, there is one project within the NNSA’s nonproliferation budget account that does nothing to reduce security threats for the foreseeable future. It is also the single most costly program in the account, receiving over $666 million (over 30% of the total) in FY 2010. Moreover, even if it is completed, it will likely fail to achieve its primary objectives in a reasonable time and at reasonable cost. Worst yet, the project could well increase the risk that plutonium will end up in the hands of terrorists. For this reason, this program should never have been funded out of NNSA’s nonproliferation account in the first place.

The name of this project? The U.S. Plutonium Disposition Program.

For more than a decade, NNSA has mismanaged hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year in spending for this bloated, $5 billion pork-barrel project. Congress could enhance the security of the American public by suspending this program, and using the money saved to fully fund the other, more critical programs in the nonproliferation account.

A Jobs Program

The purpose of the Plutonium Disposition Program is to manage the stockpile of surplus plutonium from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons by blending it with uranium and using it as “mixed oxide” (MOX) fuel in nuclear reactors. However, the program has gained support because it has also evolved into a jobs program. The centerpiece of the MOX program is a factory being built at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, South Carolina. SRS is part of the U.S. complex of nuclear weapons facilities, and the MOX project is helping to offset declining employment opportunities at the site.

It is quite telling that the first paragraph of a new fact sheet put out this week by NNSA on the project boasts that it is “one of the largest construction projects in the Southeastern United States” and “currently employs more than 1,800 construction workers, designers and engineers.” Almost as an afterthought, it then makes reference to the plant’s role in “U.S. national security and energy policy.”

Ballooning Costs and No Takers

The MOX factory has been besieged by poor planning and mismanagement from the beginning, causing the estimated cost to balloon from $1 billion to nearly $5 billion today and the estimated startup date to slip by at least a decade, to 2016.  But even if the plant starts producing MOX fuel on schedule, which is not a good bet, it is far from assured that it will have any place to send it. Thus the plant is truly a “factory to nowhere.”

The main problem is that MOX fuel is far more expensive and hazardous to fabricate, transport, store, and use in reactors than the standard all-uranium fuel that is currently used by U.S. nuclear reactors. As a result, private industry will not touch the stuff without being paid a pretty penny to take it off NNSA’s hands. But it is clear that NNSA will have to pony up even more money than it had originally offered to attract interest in the fuel.

Duke Energy initially had signed a contract to use the output of the plant, but allowed the contract to lapse in 2008, leaving the facility without any customers. More than two years later, NNSA still does not have a firm commitment from any utility to take MOX fuel. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is studying the issue, but it is already saddled with other NNSA commitments (including tritium production and use of surplus, contaminated uranium fuel) that could interfere with the use of MOX. The fuel will also have to undergo extensive and time-consuming qualification testing before it can be used in TVA’s reactors. A MOX fuel irradiation test in one of Duke Energy’s reactors had to be prematurely terminated in 2008 because of unanticipated problems and will most likely have to be repeated.

An Inducement for Russia?

The chief rationale for the U.S. Plutonium Disposition Program was to engage Russia in a bilateral exercise in order to encourage it to do the same, thus addressing the security problem of poorly secured plutonium stocks in Russia that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called a “clear and present danger” in 1993. (In addition to MOX, the NAS also identified an alternative means of plutonium disposition known as “immobilization,” which entails mixing the plutonium with radioactive waste and imbedding it in large heavy rods of glass or ceramic, and then burying it along with highly radioactive wastes. Although NNSA determined that the immobilization would be cheaper than MOX, the United States believed that Russia did not want to treat its plutonium as waste and would only be interested in the MOX option. In 2002, NNSA cancelled all work on immobilization.)

The United States and Russia signed an agreement in 2000 to each dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium. However, Russia never seriously adhered to the terms of the original agreement, and the bilateral initiative has effectively come undone. In 2010, the two nations signed an amended protocol which for all intents and purposes decoupled the two disposition programs by allowing Russia to use plutonium in fast neutron reactors. This amendment essentially sanctioned what Russia had been planning to do on its own all along. Moreover, the amended protocol allows Russia to reprocess 30% of the spent fuel from those reactors to produce additional separated plutonium, thereby undermining a chief benefit of the original agreement: to reduce the amount of separated plutonium stored in Russia.

Even so, there are troubling indications that Russia is still not holding up its end of the deal. In the FY 2012 NNSA budget request, the Obama administration is proposing to withhold additional U.S. funding for the Russian plutonium disposition program pending a new agreement between the U.S. and Russia on “detailed implementation milestones.” This is particularly puzzling in view of the fact that the 2010 amended protocol already contained an “Annex on Key Program Elements” with detailed implementation milestones. It appears that Russia is still not moving forward expeditiously with the program even after signing the amended protocol.

Nuclear Terrorism Risks

A danger of the MOX program is that the “cure” it promises for the surplus plutonium problem threatens to be worse than the “disease.” Conversion of plutonium to MOX fuel involves many stages of transportation and bulk processing of plutonium, providing myriad opportunities both in the U.S. and Russia for insider and outsider theft of the material. If these risks are not carefully controlled, the program could actually increase nuclear terrorism risks.

Yet to cut costs and make MOX more palatable for utilities to handle, NNSA has encouraged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to reduce safeguards and security requirements on MOX fuel. The NRC has already weakened security requirements for MOX fuel storage at reactor sites and is currently considering further security and safeguards rollbacks for MOX across the board. By weakening security at home and sending the wrong signal to Russia, this undermines one of the chief goals of plutonium disposition—to reduce the likelihood of diversion or theft of plutonium.

Pork We Can’t Afford

The MOX program provides no clear security benefits, and using it as a jobs program is a luxury that Americans simply can no longer afford. In FY 2010, Congressional conferees expressed concern that “future cost increases in the construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, Waste Solidification Building, and supporting activities could divert resources from high-priority overseas nonproliferation activities.” In the current climate of fiscal austerity, it is clear that the conferees’ concerns will be realized unless the MOX program is reined in.

We propose that NNSA suspend construction on the MOX fuel fabrication plant and that it reduce funding to the minimum level needed for maintenance of the site. A suspension would provide some breathing room to conduct a new evaluation of potentially cheaper disposition options, such as plutonium immobilization. And a few years’ suspension of the project will have little impact on the ultimate completion date of the project, which is sometime in the 2040s (based on the U.S.-Russia agreed disposition rate of 1.3 metric tons per year). Moreover, given the indications that the Russian program is also experiencing delays, this will help to maintain the commitment that the two programs should be implemented “in parallel to the extent practicable.”

This suspension would enable Congress to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of pork from the nonproliferation budget while preserving full funding for programs that address urgent security concerns, such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. It remains to be seen if members of Congress from South Carolina will demonstrate a commitment to their deficit-busting ideals and support cutting pork that benefits their own constituents to the detriment of the country at large.

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