Championing Responsible National Security Policy

It’s Time to Think Outside the MOX

The Project On Government Oversight has long been concerned about the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) at the Savannah River Site. It’s a program that has been mismanaged by the Department of Energy and poorly overseen by Congress for over a decade. A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) takes a look at the history of this program and the cost-saving alternatives to what has become known as the “nuclear bridge to nowhere.”

Construction of the facility is part of a deal signed in 2000 between the U.S. and Russia in which both countries agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium. The disposition of this plutonium will significantly improve the safety and security associated with nuclear materials in both countries. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) explored several options before settling on building the MOX facility to convert pure plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for use in nuclear power reactors.

Initially the DOE pursued a “dual track” approach. The pure plutonium coming from disassembled nuclear weapons would be converted in the MOX facility while the “impure” plutonium in the form of residues or spent fuel would be disposed of using a method called immobilization. Immobilization is a process in which plutonium is converted into a powder and mixed with either ceramic or glass along with other highly radioactive wastes.

Immobilization was a less expensive, easier, and faster disposition method than MOX and it is the only viable method for disposing all of the designated plutonium, both pure and impure. According to the UCS report, the immobilization process requires fewer steps than the process to turn plutonium into mixed oxide fuel, it does not produce any plutonium-laden scrap material, it causes less wear on the equipment, and there are lower risks for potential accidents. In 2001, POGO met with White House representatives to encourage the Administration to continue pursuing immobilization.

Despite all of the benefits of the immobilization process, the DOE abandoned the program in 2002. The DOE stated that due to budget constraints it could only pursue one plan and that Russia would not accept an immobilization-only strategy. However, the Department has never explained why Russia would accept the immobilization of some plutonium but not all of it. UCS explains: “The DOE’s cancelation of the immobilization program was a major blow to development of a promising technology and caused chaos within DOE’s nuclear material management programs. Its repercussions are still being felt today.”

Since 2002 the DOE has struggled to find an alternative method to dispose of the impure plutonium. The Department even briefly restarted the immobilization program in 2007 before canceling it again in 2008 due to escalating cost projections, according to UCS. In 2012 the Department announced that MOX was the “Preferred Alternative,” (despite escalating cost projections for the MOX facility as well). Only two years later the DOE declared that MOX might be “unaffordable” and that it needed to look into alternatives once again.

MOX was originally supposed to cost $1.6 billion, but that number has since skyrocketed to almost $7.7 billion; construction began in 2007 and was initially expected to be completed in three years, but remains unfinished. This is nothing new in the world of DOE construction projects. What is remarkable is that the Department has pursued such a flawed plan for so long.

In 2009, the contractor in charge of the MOX project lost its only potential customer for the mixed oxide fuel and has since been unable to find another customer. This may be due to safety concerns about the use of mixed oxide fuel in certain reactors, such as boiling water reactors like those used in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In 2012, the House Appropriations Committee stated: “the timelines are long to perform the work that must be done to assure industry and the public that the use of MOX will not present an unnecessary risk….Ultimately, the success of the overall program hinges on its ability to attract civilian customers.”

In its recent report, UCS went on to discuss the complex licensing and construction authorization processes for the MOX facility, paying particular attention to the many exemptions from security requirements granted to the MOX contractor. For example, the contractor requested, and was granted, exemptions from annual force-on-force inspections—simulated attacks on the nuclear guard force by a mock commando-type adversary team meant to test the quality of the security.

What is perhaps most troubling is that UCS found that these security exemptions could be applied at facilities across the United States. “The outcome is that the U.S. plutonium disposition program is helping weaken domestic and international standards for securing nuclear materials rather than strengthening them.”

Thankfully the DOE has recently determined that the MOX program may be unsustainable. In its FY 2015 budget request, the Department decided to put the project on “cold-standby” while alternative plutonium disposition options were examined. Unfortunately Congress disagreed with that decision and allocated over $300 million to the project in its year-end spending bill and prohibited the Department from using the funds to put MOX on cold-standby.

Still, the DOE conducted a study into MOX alternatives which identified three options: immobilization, downblending and disposing the material in a repository, and disposing the plutonium in deep geological “boreholes.” UCS felt that the DOE study did not fully examine several options and even fell short on the options it did look into.

UCS pointed out seven MOX alternative options worth considering, and detailed several of those options, including restarting the immobilization program at as low a cost as possible and utilizing existing facilities, including the partially constructed MOX building. UCS also considered the downblending and disposal method. While there are many advantages to this approach—it’s cost effective and fast—the only functioning repository for nuclear waste in the U.S. has been closed for almost a year due to a radiation leak.

It is clear that the MOX program has been an expensive and time consuming boondoggle. There are alternative methods of plutonium disposition that deserve a thorough analysis by the DOE. Immobilization is a clear front-runner as it is the only method that can dispose of all the excess plutonium at this time. While it will require a significant investment to re-start the program and make up for lost time, it is still a better option than continuing to pour money into MOX. With its skyrocketing costs, lack of customers, and inability to process impure plutonium, the MOX facility truly is the nuclear bridge to nowhere.