Letters concerning the fate of the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication factory at Savannah River Site continue to pour into U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s office.
The latest was mailed Tuesday by more than a dozen prominent former arms negotiators and senior diplomats supporting the conclusions of a report completed last month by the Red Team, a group of industry experts assembled by Moniz to evaluate cost projections and alternatives to the MOX project.
The report found that the Energy Department could save $400 million a year and greatly reduce risk by blending down its excess weapons-grade plutonium for disposal at a New Mexico nuclear waste repository instead of continuing to convert it into commercial nuclear reactor fuel at SRS.
“Many of us have come to similar conclusions in the past,” the authors of the latest letter to Moniz stated.
The signatories included former nuclear arms negotiators Robert Einhorn and Robert Gallucci; former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Joseph Nye; former White House director for arms control and former Pentagon and intelligence official Henry S. Rowen; former head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Jessica Matthews; former Nuclear Regulatory Commission members Peter Bradford and Victor Gilinsky; National Medal of Science winner Richard Garwin, a designer of the first hydrogen bomb; and nuclear policy experts Henry Sokolski, Frank von Hippel, S. David Freeman and Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione.
The group told Moniz that the Energy Department could uphold an agreement it made with Russia in 2000 to safely dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium without implementing the MOX program.
The department has yet to respond to the Red Team’s findings.
“More important, in addition to saving money, ending the current MOX program would be in the nation’s national security interest,” the letter said.
Construction on the MOX facility began in 2007. In 1999, the plant was projected to cost $1.7 billion. The estimate rose to $4.9 billion, and in 2013 the cost was revised to $7.7 billion. So far, about $4.4 billion has been spent on the plant, which is nearly 70 percent complete and employs more than 1,800 workers.
The group’s letter argues that continuing with the MOX program helps plutonium recycling advocates in Japan, China, South Korea and other nations maintain the illusion that plutonium separation and recycling are activities in which responsible non-weapon states engage.
“The United States has for four decades consistently opposed the spread of such activities because of the obvious proliferation danger of putting nuclear-weapons explosive
materials into commercial channels,” they said.
The group told Moniz that it would be particularly advantageous to end the MOX program now.
“Japan is on the verge of opening its large reprocessing plant at Rokkasho,” they said. “Ending the U.S. MOX program and thereby underlining that plutonium has no economic value
would put the U.S. in a much better position to urge Japan to put off any such decision.”
More broadly, they said, ending the MOX project would allow the U.S. to ask that not only Japan but also South Korea and China join in a decision to defer commercial plutonium-based fuel activities.
“A simultaneous announcement would help these governments deal with their plutonium recycling interest groups,” they said. “Indeed, we believe that such an announcement at the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit next spring would constitute a historic step to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.”