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Nuclear Waste: Washington has ignored a cheaper way to dispose of its plutonium — until now

After DOE spends $3.7 billion on a troubled fuel plant, an alternative plan to bury the nuclear explosive suddenly gains new advocates

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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The fuel factory is at the heart of a U.S.-Russian pact that calls for each nation to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium withdrawn from excess nuclear weapons — a deal that’s been altered so many times that it’s now unclear if the end result will be a world with less plutonium or more.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.

The mystery glue

That requirement inspired the scientists to invent a mysterious substance that can be mixed with plutonium, which they have called “stardust.”

James Giusti, a DOE spokesman at the Savannah River site, said the precise composition of “stardust” is classified, but he confirmed that it’s not radioactive, which greatly eases handling of the wastes. When the “stardust” is blended with small amounts of plutonium, he said, it is hard to separate the two materials — and that’s crucial. “The compound makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to recover the plutonium unless you have a special chemical separation facility,” he said.

On a minute scale, this immobilization process has been shown to work. About 22 pounds of weapons plutonium have been mixed with “stardust,” placed in drums and stored at the bottom of a 2,150-foot-deep, man-made cavern east of Carlsbad, N.M., according to DOE officials. The remote, $1 billion government facility there was carved out of salt beds to be a repository for materials contaminated with highly radioactive wastes left over from U.S. weapons work, and in theory it could be expanded to hold larger quantities of immobilized plutonium.

Kenneth Bromberg, a former DOE official, said he has seen studies asserting that immobilization would cost 20 to 30 percent less than building the fuel factory, although he warned that cost estimates are difficult on such complex projects.

A 2002 report to Congress by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the division of the Energy agency overseeing the plutonium disposal effort, stated bluntly that immobilization was cheaper. The study estimated that long-term immobilization and storage of the plutonium — the option now getting a new look — would cost $600 million less than fashioning it into reactor fuel using the MOX plant: $3.2 billion instead of $3.8 billion (those were the prices at the time).

The Bush administration rejected the cheaper approach, however, citing the fact that the Russians disliked immobilization and wanted America to pursue the alternative approach Moscow preferred — namely construction of a factory that would turn the plutonium into reactor fuel.

Moscow said only this method would extract financial value from the plutonium. So the Russians are building a similar factory, in a mountain tunnel complex at the formerly closed city of Zheleznogorsk in central Siberia, and they intend to burn that factory’s MOX fuel in two nuclear “breeder” reactors. Those two reactors are ideal for creating new plutonium — just the opposite of what the original deal was supposed to accomplish, causing many arms control advocates to question the virtue of the arrangement.

The NNSA report, which said that immobilization was a cheaper option, was actually drafted to explain why that path was not selected. It did so by citing Russia’s preference, and by noting — in a politically savvy fashion — that pursuing immobilization would reduce “employment that would have been created in South Carolina.”

Congress knew from the outset that building the fuel factory was not the cheapest option. “It was a cost that Congress was willing to accept in order to help the Russian MOX program stay on track,” the House Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee noted in an April 2006 report.

This history has since been garbled a bit by DOE: When asked to explain the choice at a recent congressional hearing, Neile Miller, then the acting head of NNSA, responded that when MOX was chosen “as a way to get agreement with the Russians,” U.S. officials believed the arrangement could be “more cost effective.”

Not the only solution

In the debate over what the government should do now, William H. Tobey, a former DOE official in both Bush administrations, said the South Carolina project is still vital to the world’s security, despite its soaring pricetag, because immobilization on a large scale is unproven. “I think it is necessary to eliminate it [the plutonium], even at great cost,” said Tobey, who is now at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Cancelling the fuel factory “would be a grave mistake.”

But some of those who helped launch the fuel factory project in the 1990s now say it was the wrong decision, due to the growing gulf between the plant’s staggering expense and its modest goals.

Frank von Hippel, a White House science official in the early 1990’s who chaired a working group on Russia’s weapons plutonium, said he initially supported the MOX plant because the threat was high and MOX was the only solution Russia would support. But Russia’s decision since then to burn its new MOX fuel in reactors that can actually produce more plutonium was the last straw for von Hippel. As a result, he said, the MOX plant “[has] become from my point of view a pretty meaningless program” — one that’s cost billions of dollars so far.

Last May, von Hippel joined three other prominent scientists in a commentary published in Nature, entitled, “Time to Bury Plutonium,” in which they criticized Britain’s draft plans to dispose of its huge stockpile of surplus reactor plutonium by building a new MOX plant of its own. The four authors wrote that MOX programs worldwide have been plagued by extravagant expenses, technology breakdowns and design flaws.

In France, Areva’s recycling of plutonium from spent fuel for MOX adds about $750 million each year to the cost of electricity, according to a French study in 2000 cited by their article. Britain closed its Sellafield MOX plant in 2011, they pointed out, after it operated at just 1 percent of capacity for a decade.

The authors urged the country to “give plutonium immobilization another look … Although the technique has not been demonstrated at full scale, there is substantial literature on how to do it. Immobilization should be easier and cheaper than MOX production.” Von Hippel separately said that according to his calculations, it could be as much as seven times cheaper.

A few months after the article appeared, two of the authors were named by President Obama to key posts: Rodney Ewing, a University of Michigan nuclear waste expert was named chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board in September, and Allison Macfarlane, an MIT-trained geologist was appointed to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in July. The MOX plant is being built to NRC quality standards, and the agency must license the MOX plant before it can begin operations.

The immobilization alternative is not worry-free. One longstanding concern is that over hundreds of thousands of years, the glass, ceramic or metal could degrade and the plutonium settle into a pile large enough to create a “critical” mass of the explosive material and spark spontaneous nuclear blasts. That’s the sort of scenario that gives public officials pause.

Ewing, explaining that he was speaking for himself and not for the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, told the Center for Public Integrity that he couldn’t say how much immobilization would cost. But he said that recent research leaves no doubt that plutonium can be locked into a crystalline ceramic material and stored safely for tens of thousands of years.

Unrealized ambitions

Although the White House has not allocated any additional funding for the South Carolina plant after 2014, the Energy Department claims it remains in contention as a solution to the plutonium disposal problem. But already it’s clear that the original U.S. goal for the program — reducing the world’s supply of nuclear explosive material by 68 tons – will not be realized.

Washington compromised repeatedly with Russia to pursue a program that even for some of its initial supporters has long since ceased to be a top nonproliferation priority. Meanwhile, the price of the MOX fuel factory soared far beyond the Energy department’s estimates, making it one of many, multi-billion dollar, Energy Department programs accused of being poorly run.

“MOX is just a sample of a larger problem,” says Gene Aloise, a senior federal auditor who tracked nonproliferation projects for the Government Accountability Office from 1994 to 2012.

The result is that Washington has spent at least $3.7 billion on a plant to manufacture reactor fuel no U.S. utility is eager to buy, after rejecting alternatives that likely would have been cheaper.

“The government’s plutonium plan is a pluperfect disaster,” Sen. Edward Markey, a newly-elected Massachusetts Democrat, told the Center for Public Integrity in a statement. “And all to produce $2 billion worth of reactor fuel at a cost of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and damage to our global non-proliferation efforts.” Markey was the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, has long been active on nuclear safety issues, and in 1986 chaired hearings on the Chernobyl disaster.

The factory’s fate might be decided next year, as the administration prefers, after another $320 million is spent on its construction. Or Congress might decide to take swifter and more decisive action in budget legislation this summer.

No matter what the outcome, it’s clear that the MOX fuel plant project has provided hundreds of high-paying jobs to South Carolina, helped stimulate the economy during a deep recession, and served as a training program for a new generation of nuclear workers. All may be worthy.

But the price has been steep. And after twenty years of negotiations, promises and plans, and billions in spending, the U.S. appears no closer — in its principal plutonium disposal efforts — to the goal of making the world safer from a nuclear disaster.