A new study commissioned by the Energy Department found that the U.S. could save $400 million a year if it disposed of weapons-grade plutonium at a New Mexico nuclear waste repository instead of converting the surplus material into mixed-oxide fuel at Savannah River Site.
The report, released Thursday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, was produced by the Red Team, a group of industry experts assembled by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to evaluate cost
projections and alternatives to the MOX project.
The team concluded after a visit to SRS last month that the program would need to increase its annual budget from $400 million now to between $700 million and $800 million in the next two to three years to be viable. It said the program would need to remain at that funding level until the U.S. has satisfied an agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium.
“The bottom line is the MOX program is too expensive and too risky to continue,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist. “The Energy Department’s own study supports that conclusion. Let’s stop throwing good money after bad and pull the plug on this $30 billion boondoggle.”
Lyman wrote a report for the Union of Concerned Scientists in January 2015 recommending that the Energy Department shut down the MOX project – whose estimated life-cycle cost has increased from $1.6 billion to more than $30 billion – and ship the surplus plutonium to a New Mexico facility.
The Red Team report came to a similar conclusion, finding that “difficult, downward spiraling circumstances” have contributed to construction delays and cost overruns for the MOX project, which is about 70 percent complete and employs 1,800 workers.
High staff turnover, the need to replace improperly installed equipment and an antagonistic relationship between the local federal project director and the contractor are only some of the factors undermining the project, the report said.
Al Stotts, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, confirmed that the report was delivered to Moniz’s office last week, but he said the Energy Department will not make the report available until after the appropriate reviews for public release are complete.
“There are no obvious silver bullets to reduce the (life-cycle cost) of the MOX approach,” according to the report.
The report contrasted MOX with downblending, a method the Energy Department has used to dispose of several metric tons of plutonium. The report says downblending could be used at about $400 million a year over roughly the same timeframe as the MOX approach for conversion into fuel for commercial reactors.
That method involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material, then sending it to the nuclear waste site in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for burial.
The New Mexico plant is not accepting waste as a result of two accidents in February 2014, but it is expected to be fully operational within five years, which would not significantly delay downblending.