The government’s $4.8 billion quest to rid itself of tons of high-grade plutonium from old nuclear bombs is veering in new directions this year.
The broad plan is to build a mammoth mixed oxide, or “MOX” plant at Savannah River Site, where the material will be rendered forever unusable in weapons by blending it into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.
That construction project, entering its sixth year, is moving ahead as planned, said Peter Hanlon, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s assistant deputy administrator for fissile materials disposition.
“It is on schedule to be completed in October of 2016,” he said in an interview with The Augusta Chronicle. “Right now we’re at 60 percent completion on the overall project.”
Currently, about 2,200 workers are employed at the site — up significantly from the 1,800-person workforce last year.
Although the fuel factory itself is progressing much as it was envisioned a decade ago, the newest changes under consideration focus on how and where the plutonium “pits” from obsolete warheads will be dismantled and converted to a powder suitable for use in the MOX plant.
Previous pit disassembly options called for a freestanding building near the MOX complex. Later discussions focused on housing that function in the vacant K Reactor at Savannah River Site.
The newest plan, disclosed in a recent Federal Register notice, proposes a cost-saving combination of four separate facilities, including the MOX plant itself.
“We live in a fiscally constrained environment these days,” Hanlon said. “We sought out the most cost efficient ways to save money and yet complete the mission.”
The mission involves disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium — or the equivalent needed for about 17,000 warheads.
The new plan, which remains a “preferred alternative” until a formal decision can be made, includes pit disassembly in the K reactor area and also the H Canyon complex at SRS, which was earmarked for closure but later assigned a new mission that will keep its processing areas in operation. A third participating site is Techical Area 55, located at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A fourth component includes the possibility of modifying the MOX factory itself to provide an oxidation capability onsite.
“We spent the past year studying this and the results showed there could be some savings involved in looking at our existing structures,” he said. “By using this approach, we would avoid major capital construction.”
Until a more definitive plan is drafted, and final decisions can be made, it is impossible to estimate how much savings would occur.
“We are looking to see what mix we want,” Hanlon said. “Do we use everything we proposed? Maybe and maybe not. This year, we are spending a lot of time validating costs and schedule estimates.”
The Government Accountability Office and Congressional critics have questioned whether the lag in choosing a pit disassembly option would prevent the MOX plant from starting fuel production on schedule, but officials say there will be ample supplies of plutonium oxide available.
“We’ve identified an early feed stock of approximately 10 metric tons,” Hanlon said.
That sum includes about 4.1 tons already available at SRS, about 3.7 tons that can be produced at H Canyon over the next five years and about 2 tons that will come from a production program at Los Alamos National Laboratory by 2018.
An ongoing concern about the MOX project has been the slow progress in securing agreements from commercial nuclear power reactor operators willing to use fuel rods made with plutonium.
Tennessee Valley Authority, which today remains the most promising prospect, is evaluating the use of the fuel at its two Sequoyah reactors, located along eastern Tennessee’s Chickamauga Reservoir 18 miles from Chattanooga; and at its Browns Ferry site, which houses three reactors on the shore of northern Alabama’s Wheeler Reservoir.
“We have an interagency agreeement with TVA and we’re helping them fund studies of a mix of MOX and low enriched uranium fuels,” he said. “TVA, like us, is going throuigh the NEPA (environmental impact) process and will reach their own record of decision.”
Those findings, he added, are likely to occur in 2013. “Based on those records of decision, I am comfortable we’ll be able to reach an agreement.”
Other new efforts to market MOX fuels involve stepped up negotiations with major nuclear fuel vendors — AREVA, Westinghouse and GE Hitachi.
“There are three fuel fabrication vendors in the U.S. who supply 99 percent of the reactors with fuel,” he said. “We’re workong with them to be vendors of our fuel.”
Although competitive pricing is an acknowledged part of the strategy, NNSA officials would not comment on the specifics of those negotiations.
Less confident than federal officials involved with the program are environemental watchdogs including Tom Clements, non-proliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.
The efforts to rein in costs for the MOX project, he said, may indicate diminishing support in Washington for a program that can only become more expensive.
“I think it reflects the big stresses growing on this program,” Clements said. “This project is still wandering in the wilderness of funding and at this point they are just spending money.”
Last year, the House Appropriations Committee expressed concerns about the project’s escalating costs and the quest to find clients for the fuel.
“The costs of this program continue to escalate, with current estimates of as much as $9.7 billion, just to construct the needed facilities,” committee members wrote in the fiscal 2012 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, which ultimately provided full funding for the program — about $819 million for MOX and related SRS activities.