Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Not Only Foolish, It's Fiscally Irresponsible

We can’t afford it. No one wants to buy it. And it’s putting our nuclear material at risk.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) is a Department of Energy budget-busting boondoggle. MOX, designed to convert weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors, was originally expected to cost a modest $1.6 billion. Twelve years later, DOE has sunk $4.5 billion into construction, yet the building is only 70 percent complete. The final price tag, which includes finishing construction and operating the plant over the next 20 years, is now estimated to be anywhere between $25.1 billion and $47.5 billion.

Besides a ballooning cost, MOX has a whole host of problems that should be the final nails in its coffin. Primary among them, the MOX project lost its only potential customer for mixed oxide fuel in 2008 and hasn’t been able to find a single replacement seven years later. This could be because the use of the fuel in commercial nuclear reactors will require significant safety testing, as well as extensive and expensive modifications for currently operating Low Enriched Uranium reactors.

In addition to the absence of customers, the MOX facility was designed with a glaring security flaw. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that facilities like MOX be able to verify the location of all special nuclear materials within 72 hours. The reasoning for this is simple: if a terrorist claims to have stolen nuclear material from a facility like MOX, it is essential to be able to verify or disprove such a claim as soon as possible. Yet, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the contractor designed the facility in a way that couldn’t meet those requirements. The contractor believes it will take 180 days to physically verify the location of all items stored at the facility, but it could take even longer. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted an exemption to the requirement, and construction began.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has acknowledged that the project has also seen construction setbacks, including improperly installed equipment, according to the Savannah River Site Watch.

Thankfully alternatives to the MOX do exist. The Department of Energy recently convened a “Red Team” of nuclear experts to review plutonium disposition options. They compared the MOX project to a “dilute-and-dispose” method (also known as downblending), which involves mixing weapons grade plutonium with a non-radioactive material and placing it in an underground repository. This method would not only be significantly cheaper than continuing down the MOX path, it would also offer a more secure disposal method.

The downblending approach also offers a significant advantage over the MOX program in that it is the sole method that can process all of the material. MOX is the subject of an agreement with Russia which states that each country will dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium. However, even if MOX were to be completed and fully functional, the United States would still fall short of the agreement with Russia because the technology cannot process 20 percent of the plutonium declared excess because it is “impure.”

Defenders of MOX have historically argued that downblending would not be possible because it would require amending the original deal with Russia. However, the DOE Red Team recently found that because Russia is so far ahead of the United States in its plutonium disposition process, and because the MOX project is so far behind in meeting timing requirements, that negotiations will have to be renewed anyway.

MOX is the nuclear bridge to nowhere. A project with a laundry list of problems, it is barely kept alive by minimal annual funding and earmarks by Congressional members with vested interests. Earlier this year Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) called out the lack of a clear path forward for plutonium disposition. “MOX is expensive and its future is unclear…we keep digging this hole and digging this hole. This policy is adrift, and it’s costing taxpayers a great deal of money.”

Allocating even one penny more for a program that may never be able to fully complete its mission and that doesn’t have a single potential customer is not only foolish, it’s fiscally irresponsible.