Another Nail in the Coffin of the Misguided MOX Program

, Director of Nuclear Power Safety, Climate & Energy | March 23, 2018, 11:29 am EDT
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In the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday and the Senate today, Congress is taking an encouraging step toward terminating the wasteful and dangerous Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant, under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX plant, if completed, would be used to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the project is decades behind schedule and is now expected to cost upwards of $50 billion—ten times the original estimate.

The MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant in January 2018. Photo Courtesy of High Flyer © 2018

The provision in the bill represents a significant political shift, although reports that MOX is dead are somewhat premature. Assuming the bill becomes law, the next—and hopefully final—step is when the Department of Energy (DOE) submits to Congress a life-cycle cost estimate demonstrating that an alternative approach for disposing of the excess plutonium could be accomplished for less than half of the remaining MOX project cost. The DOE’s alternative approach, “dilute and dispose,” a straightforward and well-established process, should be able to satisfy this criterion. The end of MOX is in sight.

The program that wouldn’t die

Since 2014, the DOE has been trying to end the MOX program. However, the project, which has provided a steady stream of federal funds to South Carolina for over a decade, is steadfastly protected by certain members of Congress, including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and like-minded colleagues.

For several years, a stalemate ensued, with Congress compelling the DOE to continue building a facility it no longer wanted, but without providing enough funding to effectively advance the project. Meanwhile, problems at the MOX plant, including faulty construction that requires costly and time-consuming “rework” to fix, keep piling up. Things have gotten so slow at the site that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently revealed that it was no longer stationing a full-time inspector at the MOX plant because there wasn’t enough work to justify it.

A way forward

Congress’ resolve to keep the MOX program going started to crack with the passage of the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA contained a waiver provision that would allow the DOE to terminate the MOX plant project if it could meet certain conditions, of which the most challenging was the life-cycle cost certification. The NDAA further stipulated that the cost figures would have to meet Government Accountability Office (GAO) guidelines for such estimates—standards that the DOE has had difficulty meeting in the past. The DOE now says that it will complete its estimate for the dilute and dispose option in FY 2019, although some Hill staff believe it could be as soon as this summer.

Until the omnibus bill was released, the appropriators in the House did not appear to be on the same page as the defense authorizers and their Senate counterparts. In particular, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID sought to impose even more stringent criteria on the DOE before agreeing to terminate MOX, although it is not clear he had the authority to do so. But in any event, the omnibus language explicitly accepts the NDAA waiver provisions and would allow the DOE to fund shutdown of the MOX project 30 days after submitting the requisite cost estimates to Congress. To the extent this demonstrates that Rep. Simpson has accepted the sufficiency of the NDAA waiver requirements, he should be commended.

The DOE needs to finish the job

Now the ball is in the DOE’s court to complete its life cycle cost analyses for both dilute-and-dispose and the remainder of the MOX program as accurately, comprehensively, and quickly as it can. Although there is good reason to believe that dilute-and-dispose would be well below half the ballooning cost of MOX, the DOE needs to document that conclusion in an iron-clad fashion to protect its analysis from the MOX supporters in Congress who may seek to undermine it.

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  • gragor11a

    $USD 50,000,000,000.00+

  • Sam Karchiak

    “Disposal of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium.” RIP Earth

  • stephenverchinski

    Yes they now all say, great idea after lining up New Mexico to be the repository for all the misguided efforts at MAD.

    I could say that WIPP is a great option but I won’t. I live in New Mexico and I am a human being living on a remarkable planetary spaceship that had a scientifically determined estimate of galactic travel of about a half billion more years to go. That is until the physicists worldwide working on the weapons of mass destruction and clean nuclear energy illusions have allowed our planetary systems to be continually contaminated. Their responsibility to the human race in this matter has to be recognized for the irresponsible work that it is. Someone has to be the adult in the room and state the obvious.

    Instead of saying enough, the proposal I hear is not just to bury this weapon created material to be shipped in by the ton to New Mexico but, to actually continue the insanity by making more of it in new delivery options!

    One point five trillion dollars to be spent by the U.S.A. alone enriching banksters and irresponsible corporations from the get go and giving a job to about 1% of New Mexican nuke workers.

    Meanwhile, we in New Mexico have been stuck with the contamination from the front end of the process. We don’t even have people at the labs that can send a package correctly. We haven’t even cleaned up the atmospheric fallout from 1945 nor warned federal workers like myself or the local population that hey, that original device at Trinity allowed 10 pounds of the unfissioned plutonium to be deposited downwind. We even had the brilliant scientists do open air depleted uranium testing on our turf. Not satisfied yet of our sacrifice nor the broken arrow in 1957 the war machine also wants us now to be able to make 80 more pits of plutonium a year for job creation. No, absolutely no. Not until the country gets on the same page with the other nuke powers to stop using the human population and the biosphere as test subjects should New Mexico accept any of the high level waste. Descalate and give this planet a break. Give We the People a break and lets spend money on some domestic tranquility and get some peace and quiet here and around the world with sharing that money for bioremediation and ecological systems rebuilding.

    That said I think the people of the world would be fully understanding of keeping a number of the remaining devices internationally at the ready just in case we have to send Bruce Willis out to really do a final scene. Asteroids as everybody knows are the true alien threat to our species.