The Obama administration is correct to scrap the MOX program, a pair of scientists told Savannah River Site’s Citizen Advisory Board on Tuesday.
According to Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University, reprocessing bomb-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear-power reactors – a process known as MOX – is prohibitively expensive. The better option is to dilute the plutonium, seal it and bury it.
“You pour that powder into a vessel, and you mix it with another powder which is the diluent, and you shake it up, agitate it, and you pour it into another can; put a lid on that can; take it out of the ‘glove box;’ put it into a shipping container, and it’s ready to go,” Lyman said.
The two addressed the board at its March meeting because it could have a say in disposition of some of the plutonium left over at the plant from the SRS bomb-making days.
The Department of Energy is in the midst of constructing a special facility for MOX processing, but the building isn’t complete even though it’s three times over its original budget. When the administration released its budget recommendations to Congress for the next fiscal year, it cited the overruns as reason to kill the MOX program.
“DOE has a history of project cost overruns,” von Hippel said. “It has a habit of beginning projects before they are fully designed.”
France and Japan reprocess spent nuclear fuel into MOX for their commercial reactors, but the reason they can do it more economically than what the Energy Department is trying to do at SRS is because the original material is different. While the spent fuel had already been subject to the processing necessary to transform plutonium ore into reactor pellets, some of the bomb-making material was halted in mid-process. That means considerable processing is necessary to bring it to the same point as the spent fuel that starts the MOX reprocessing overseas.
The scientists estimate that SRS could dilute and dispose of six tons of plutonium in six years at a cost of $400 million per year. They recommend the Energy Department consider other ways of direct disposal for the remaining material rather than attempting reprocessing.
The pair is well known for opposing nuclear weapons and the possibility that nuclear power use could lead to weapons making.
Von Hippel, a nuclear-policy advisory in the Clinton White House, dismissed concerns that Russia would object to dilution and disposal as a fundamental change to its treaty with the U.S. to reprocess plutonium from its nuclear warheads.
“I don’t think the Russians have a veto on what we do,” he said.
Members of the Citizens Advisory Board seemed split on the recommendation. And they weren’t getting any help from the SRS Manager Jack Craig, who turned to Energy Department spokesman Jim Giusti when a board member inquired about the MOX overruns.
“We’re not going to comment on this presentation,” Giusti said, adding that board members could submit written questions after the meeting.