A report prepared this month for the MOX Services Board of Governors suggests that mothballing the multibillion-dollar mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at Savannah River Site in favor of a dilute and dispose option in New Mexico could increase the risk of an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.
The March 2 study was completed by nuclear industry consulting firm High Bridge Associates with assistance from Studsvik Scandpower, an international nuclear physics and criticality analysis firm. It argues that the current plutonium packaging endorsed by the Department of Energy could be crushed as salt chambers at the Waste Isolated Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., close up over time, increasing the chance for criticality.
“This will result at a minimum in the release of large amounts of energy and the creation of large amounts of energy and the creation of a large inventory of radioactive fission products that would be available for release to the environment,” the report read. Modeling shows that about 30 percent crushing of one stack of waste – 21 drums holding about 8 kilograms of plutonium – would be enough to trigger a reaction, the report says.
The study rebuts the findings of two others – one by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center, and the other by industry experts dubbed the Red Team – which concluded that downblending would be more affordable than MOX. Downblending involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material, then burying it at the New Mexico site.
Aerospace put the life-cycle cost for WIPP at $13.1 billion and MOX at $47.5 billion. High Bridge estimated WIPP’s actual lifetime cost to be $46.8 billion, with MOX projected to cost $19.4 billion.
“High Bridge Associates has released several reports regarding plutonium disposition based on ill-founded assumptions,” Francie Israeli, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s press secretary, said in a written response to The Chronicle. “Based on informed assessments from the DOE laboratories, the High Bridge conclusions were judged to be simplistic and not credible.”
President Obama has shown little interest in continuing construction of the MOX facility. His fiscal year 2017 budget proposal calls for closing the facility, which is designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors. Construction on the project began in 2007 but has seen delays and cost overruns. Originally projected to cost about $1.7 billion, contractors say about $5 billion has already been sunk into the project with an additional $3 billion needed to finish it.
The project has $345 million in funding through 2016, which would drop to around $270 million under Obama’s proposal. MOX would be completely shut down by 2021 while the Energy Department looks to the New Mexico site for storage of downblended plutonium.
On Friday, a handful of lawmakers including U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Rick Allen signed a letter to Rep. Mike Simpson, the chairman of the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, requesting that MOX funding be restored to at least $345 million. The letter also asked that language in the appropriations bill require that funds be used for construction alone, essentially eliminating the possibility that funds could be used in a way that could lead to the facility’s termination.
Construction at the site continues. In a March 2 letter to David Del Vecchio, the president and chief operating officer of CB&I Areva MOX Services, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deemed the overall project performance at the site in 2015 acceptable.