About 200 MOX project construction workers were laid off recently by contractor CB&I at Savannah River Site.
“We constantly review workforce needs based on the project execution plan and make adjustments as required,” said Gentry Brann, a CB&I spokeswoman. About 2,000 workers are still employed in building MOX, she said.
In May, the Trump Administration’s budget proposal called for the project to be mothballed.
“The FY 2018 Budget Request proposes to terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute and dispose option as an alternative,” according to an appendix to the budget proposal. In 2017, the Obama Administration had proposed the same thing.
MOX is designed to demilitarize weapons grade plutonium from America’s nuclear arsenal to make it usable as a fuel in commercial nuclear power plants. The process renders the plutonium useless for military purposes.
The Department of Energy’s preferred alternative of dilute and dispose is a hands-on process that mixes plutonium with inert material. Plutonium is ground up in a “glove box” by hand with a mortar and pestle. A small amount is then placed inside a canister and shaken with inert materials. The canister is then shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for permanent interment at the salt-mine facility in New Mexico.
MOX was born from an agreement between the U.S. and Russia in 2000. The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement called for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons usable plutonium. Combined, the 68 tons is enough to create about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
Under the agreement, each nation would take the MOX route to disposing the material. In late 2016, after the National Nuclear Security Administration testified before Congress that the Obama Administration wanted to pull the plug on MOX, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the agreement.
The suspension removed the 68 tons from International Atomic Energy Agency oversight and returned it to control of each individual nation. Earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying Russia would consider reviving the agreement if the American government would return to the original disposition pathway, MOX.
“The mismanaged MOX project at SRS is in serious trouble due to design problems, massive cost overruns and significant schedule delays, making it a twin to the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactor construction project,” Tom Clements, director of the watchdog organization Savannah River Site Watch, said Thursday in a news release. “Time may have run out for the chronically troubled MOX project and formal termination should be at hand, something we have long called for given that it has been clear that MOX had become nothing more than a massive money pit.”
The release also said the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration was conducting special inspections “to determine if selected areas of the project have been constructed to required standards.”