The Department of Energy’s budget request for fiscal 2019 asks for money to close the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility and says the agency prefers the “dilute and dispose” method to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
“The Budget Request includes $220 million to continue the orderly and safe closure of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility and $59 million to pursue the proven dilute and dispose technology,” Lindsey Geisler, press secretary for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in a statement. “The administration has proposed termination of the MOX construction project because it is simply unaffordable. We have a proven method called dilute and dispose that is less expensive, has far lower risks, and can be implemented decades sooner than the MOX approach.”
The budget request seeks $1.7 billion — $287 million more than last year — to provide support at Savannah River Site for the Liquid Tank Waste Management Program, including “a significant increase” in the production at the Defense Waste Processing Facility and startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility, according to a DOE fact sheet released Monday.
The MOX project was born from a 2000 non-proliferation agreement between the U.S. and Russia, which called for the removal of 34 metric tons of plutonium from each nation’s arsenal. The MOX project at SRS would convert the plutonium from retired nuclear weapons into a blend with uranium so it can be used in commercial nuclear reactors.
Combined, the 68 tons is enough to create about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
DOE’s preferred alternative of dilute and dispose — also known as downblending — 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.
Under the agreement with Russia, each nation was to take the MOX route to disposing the material. In late 2016, after the NNSA 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.
Last year’s budget from the Trump Administration continued the policy of abandoning MOX, but the Senate put in $340 million to continue construction. Despite that, 200 construction workers were laid off in October. That left about 2,000 workers on the project, according to contractor CB&I.
Originally estimated to cost $4 billion, MOX construction began in 2007. Eleven years later, it is estimated to be only 70 percent complete, with about $12 billion needed to finish it.
Tom Clements, of Savannah River Site Watch, said closing the MOX “boondoggle” was sound policy.
“The Trump Administration is sticking with its assessment that the dead-end plutonium fuel (MOX) project at the Savannah River Site must be terminated,” Clements said in a statement. “Savannah River Site Watch applauds the position of the administration that MOX is not viable and that the waste of money on it must be terminated.”
Some observers have suggested the incomplete MOX structure could be converted to house the DOE mission to produce plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. That function is currently handled at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, but it has had production and safety problems, leading to speculation that it could be moved, possibly to SRS.
Local, state and national leaders, however, have maintained that MOX is viable and should be completed in addition to the plutonium pit mission.
In Aiken last week, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told Rotarians that MOX is the best option for the country to deal with its nuclear waste, and no one has come up with a better idea yet.
“If you’re going to replace MOX, you better have a plan and if you can’t come up with a plan to replace it, finish it,” he said he tells his colleagues in Washington.
Attempts to reach Graham on Monday were unsuccessful.