Proposed changes to the government’s mixed oxide fuel program drew mixed reactions Tuesday night as supporters and foes of the $4.8 billion project shared little common ground.
“I think MOX is the biggest disconnect of the industrial revolution – a factory with no customers,” anti-nuclear activist Glen Carroll told U.S. Energy Department officials during a public comment session in North Augusta.
The MOX plant, designed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium by blending it into commercial reactor fuel, is also a major economic engine that provides thousands of jobs, said Tom Jenkins, an official with local unions that provide labor for the project.
“We’re ready for it and we have the trained staff,” he said. “We very much support this project.”
Tuesday’s meeting was one of seven scheduled to discuss changes in the MOX program and its related environmental impact statements.
The government has not altered its mission to dispose of the plutonium, but has amended its original plan to build a freestanding plant to process plutonium “pits” from dismantled warheads into powder for use at the MOX plant.
Instead, the new plan will use multiple existing facilities, including the H Canyon facilities at Savannah River Site, to accomplish the same mission without building a new plant.
Plutonium not suitable for MOX will be disposed of at a site in New Mexico.
Critics of the program, however, raised continuing concerns about escalating costs and suggested the plutonium could simply be processed as nuclear waste and immobilized.
Tom Clements, the non-proliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, also noted that there are currently no clients willing to use MOX fuel in commercial reactors.
Although the Tennessee Valley Authority has indicated an interest in using MOX at its Sequoyah and Brown’s Ferry nuclear plants, a formal agreement does not yet exist, he said, adding that some estimates place the MOX program’s costs as high as $17 billion.
A cheaper alternative, he suggested, would be to immobilize plutonium at the SRS Defense Waste Processing Facility or a similar project that would prevent any future use of the material for weapons.
“The costs are just spiraling out of control, Clements said.
Supporters of the MOX program included Donald Bridges, a member of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board who – speaking as a private citizen – said he supported using the H Canyon facility at SRS to move the project forward.
“Using an existing facility is a cost-effective option for DOE,” he said, noting that the project is now 16 years old and needs to move ahead. “Soon, it will be old enough to go to college.”
The Energy Department will continue to collect comments on the revised environmental impact statement and expects to issue a record of decision on the changes sometime in 2013.