For the past decade, Washington has known how to dispose of excess U.S. plutonium at a cost estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars less than what the Energy Department is spending on a South Carolina factory meant to transform plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors.
Instead of burning the plutonium, the cheaper alternative mixes it with glass or ceramics and some other materials, so it can be buried deep underground.
The government — until now — has rejected that option. But after spending $3.7 billion on the still-incomplete fuel factory, the Obama administration is giving the immobilization alternative a closer look. And independent scientists who formerly supported the so-called Mixed-Oxide (MOX) plant are now arguing that the alternative, called “immobilization,” seems the wiser choice.
Immobilization “appears to be cheaper and easier to do,” said Matthew Bunn, who was U.S. staff director for a joint U.S.-Russian panel that drafted a blueprint for the huge plutonium disposal project at the request of the White House in 1996.
The fuel factory is at the heart of a U.S.-Russian pact that calls for each nation to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium withdrawn from excess nuclear weapons — a deal that’s been altered so many times that it’s now unclear if the end result will be a world with less plutonium or more.
Meanwhile, the MOX fuel factory is billions of dollars over budget and under new scrutiny by the Obama administration, which has threatened to cancel it.
“I was one of the ones pushing [the project] … I used to be strongly in support of the program, but have gotten fed up with the sheer cost” of the fuel factory, said Bunn, now a co-director of Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom, aimed at reducing the risks posed by nuclear explosive materials.
At the factory, located on the Savannah River government reservation near Aiken, S.C., the plutonium is supposed to be mixed in a powder with another radioactive oxide, and then compressed into pellets to be stacked in fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
Under the immobilization option, plutonium would instead be ground up and encased in ceramic material shaped like a hockey puck, before being stacked in a can. The cans could be placed in a larger canister filled with molten glass contaminated by intensely radioactive nuclear waste — deadly enough to stop any thief or intruder. It would then be stored in subterranean vaults or inserted into 3-mile-deep boreholes, probably in a western state.
Under the original deal with Russia, the United States planned to immobilize a little over a quarter of the 34 tons of plutonium and convert the remainder into MOX fuel. In 2002, however, the administration of President George W. Bush canceled the immobilization option, arguing it lacked the funds to pursue both. Subsequently, Energy Department scientists discovered that some of the plutonium could not easily be converted into reactor fuel, forcing them to come up with an immobilization scheme for at least 4 metric tons of plutonium now at Savannah River.