Obama’s budget would kill costly plutonium disposition project

The administration’s second attempt to kill MOX plant faces familiar political opposition

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The Mixed Oxide (MOX) construction project at the Savannah River Site in September 2012. The fuel fabrication plant, the heart of the project, is the unfinished concrete structure at the center of the photo.

Savannah River Site/Flickr

For the second time, the Obama administration has proposed to put a stake through the heart of a huge nuclear nonproliferation project in South Carolina that Congress just won’t let die, despite billions of dollars in cost overruns and a long-term price tag that officials say is wildly unaffordable.

The Department of Energy proposed in its 2017 budget request, released Tuesday Feb. 9, to terminate funding to the Mixed Oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site. The project, known as MOX, was viewed as a path to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium from the nation’s Cold War nuclear weapons program, under a deal reached decades ago with Russia.

MOX is meant to convert the nuclear weapons explosive into fuel for domestic power plants. But management failures, detailed in a four-part 2014 series of articles by CPI, have undermined that goal, and nuclear power plants have shown little interest in using MOX fuel.

Several DOE reports have officially endorsed the predominant solution urged by independent scientists: diluting the plutonium and burying it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a subterranean nuclear waste dump in New Mexico known as WIPP. The president’s proposed budget recommends this path.

But a series of accidents two years ago stopped waste shipments to WIPP, and they still haven’t resumed. The Energy Department recently announced it expects some shipments to resume by the end of the year. Already, $4.5 billion has been spent on the unfinished MOX plant, and some estimates place its ultimate price at about $30 billion. Dilution and disposal at WIPP is estimated to cost about $17 billion.

Burial is “the least bad way,” according to Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group. The cost and environmental uncertainty of the MOX conversion process are both too high, he said.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a letter to Obama dated Nov. 20, 2015, expressed a clear preference for diluting and disposing of the plutonium at WIPP. He called it one of several “high-priority ‘hot potato'’” issues. The letter was posted on the website of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, on Feb. 9.

But the Obama administration still faces staunch opposition from South Carolina’s congressional delegation, which has fought to keep the MOX project alive, even in the face of delays and rising costs. Three years ago, the South Carolina delegation led the way when Congress blocked the Obama administration’s recommendation to shelve MOX.

“I don’t think there’s any question that they’re just trying to salvage a jobs program at this point,” Lyman said.

In a written statement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, called the Obama administration’s proposal to cease funding MOX “reckless.” He expressed pessimism about renegotiating the terms of plutonium disposition with Russia during such a chilly phase in its relationship with the United States.

"Now is not the time to change course and have the Obama administration try to renegotiate anything with the Russians,” Graham said. “It will not end well for U.S. interests. One can only imagine what the Russians will ask for in return.”

In the letter to Obama, Moniz said that Russian nuclear officials "are amenable to discussion" but that the Russian foreign ministry had not expressed its views as yet.

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