Everyone should have a New Year’s resolution, and we have one for the Department of Energy: stop wasting taxpayer dollars on constructing nuclear facilities that won’t work.
It’s been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down, but the United States is still busy cleaning up the nuclear leftovers of the Cold War. Two major nuclear construction projects—one for melting down old bombs and another for remediating toxic waste—have turned into epic boondoggles. It’s time to pause these projects, and make sure they are as safe, smart, and cost effective as they can be.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) is a construction project at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. The facility is the result of a bilateral agreement with Russia in which each country agreed to dispose of 32 metric tons of plutonium. The MOX plant would convert weapons grade material into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. But MOX is decades behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget, lacks a single potential customer for the mixed oxide fuel, and is even putting our nuclear material at risk.
The MOX project was originally expected to cost a modest $1.6 billion and begin processing plutonium in 2007. In the years since then, the Department of Energy has sunk $4.5 billion into construction, which is only 70 percent complete. Furthermore, Energy officials recently told Congress that the project has a 25 percent “rework” rate, meaning a quarter of the total work at MOX will need to be redone.
Yet for some reason Congress continues to fund this disaster. The omnibus funding bill for FY 2016 provided $340 million for continuing construction, which is enough to keep the project alive but not enough to move it forward. In fact, an independent study by The Aerospace Corporation in 2015 found that continued funding at this level would skyrocket the total cost of MOX to $114 billion and delay completion to 2100 (that’s not a typo: 2100).
In addition to staggering cost overruns, MOX has a host of additional problems. The Energy Department lost it’s only potential customer for the MOX fuel in 2008 and has not been able to find a single replacement. Furthermore, the Union of Concerned Scientists has raised concerns about a security exemption the contractor was granted before construction began. It could take the MOX contractor 180 days to physically verify the presence of all nuclear items—60 times the safety requirement.
Thankfully a Red Team of nuclear experts has identified a cheaper, faster, and less risky option for disposing of this plutonium. It’s just up to the Department of Energy and Congress to stop funding the wasteful MOX facility and start funding a program that will actually work.
Unfortunately MOX is not the only nuclear construction project squandering taxpayer dollars. The Energy Department has yet to find a solution for the Hanford Site in Richland, Washington, where weapons grade plutonium was manufactured throughout the Cold War. In the years since, Hanford has become the biggest environmental cleanup project in the world.
The U.S. has spent over $19 billion on the cleanup at Hanford in the last 25 years. Large tanks storing millions of gallons of toxic sludge are leaking into the groundwater surrounding the Columbia River and are at risk of explosion. DOE is trying to build a plant that will pump the sludge from the tanks and process it into a form suitable for long-term storage. There’s only one problem: the plant does not, and likely will not, work.
The contract for design and construction of the $12.3 billion Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) was awarded in 2000 but the project has been plagued by engineering and management problems almost from the start. The Government Accountability Office cited critical technical problems found in 2002 and again in 2004, which, according to the watchdog, remain unresolved. In 2012 (the year after the plant was first scheduled to begin full-scale operation) the plant’s engineering director wrote to the DOE identifying 34 instances where the contractor in charge of the project provided information that was “factually incorrect” and design solutions that “did not comply with the safety basis.” The memo concluded that the contractor’s plan “did not represent best value to the Government in terms of design costs, operating costs, or completion schedule.” In response, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu slowed construction of the WTP in 2012.
The next year, Chu’s replacement, Ernest Moniz, authorized construction of another facility, the Low-Activity Waste Plant, to treat less dangerous radioactive waste while engineers worked on ways to fix the WTP. Last year, a leaked internal report detailed 362 “significant design vulnerabilities” with the new facility. While not all of these are fatal flaws, they will need to be addressed prior to the beginning of operations. The review noted that “unless resolved in a timely manner, these vulnerabilities are expected to result in unacceptable risk to the overall project mission.”
DOE’s current plan for the Hanford site depends on the WTP, and with the cleanup expected to last at least another 60 years it’s imperative that the Energy Department not cut corners. The Department needs to take a hard look at whether its current plans for the Hanford site are technically feasible before sinking any more money into the troubled WTP and Low-Activity Waste Plants.
MOX and the WTP represent government at its most wasteful. The difficult truth highlighted by dozens of reports and findings by outside experts is that neither plant can perform as designed. It’s long past time for the Energy Department and Congress to cut this radioactive pork and pursue options that will eliminate this dangerous nuclear material once and for all.