The technology is complicated, but its mission is very simple.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is designed to dispose of plutonium by converting it into fuel for nuclear power plants. It would take something most would consider bad (weapons-grade material) and turn it into something most would consider good (a source of emission-free electricity).
That is, if it ever gets built.
President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget abandons the 600,000-square-foot project – which is already 60 percent complete – by placing it on “cold standby.”
What a waste. And, frankly, a hazard.
Kiss the $3.9 billion that already has been spent goodbye. Kiss the 1,800 skilled-construction jobs goodbye. Kiss the potential fuel-supply deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plants goodbye. And, most importantly, you can give a goodbye kiss to the removal of 34 metric tons of plutonium from the U.S. and former Soviet weapons arsenals.
Obama’s Department of Energy reportedly is studying cheaper options and new technologies to eliminate plutonium. But that looks more like a smokescreen. MOX is a proven technology, having been around for more than 40 years in Europe and tested in more than 30 reactors worldwide. After years of commitment and billions in investment, the DOE now is going to decide to pursue other options?
It appears Obama is throwing a bone to the left’s radical environmentalist wing, which is opposed to anything nuclear. What better way to do that than mothball a facility in a conservative state? Two for the price of one!
Critics of the project continue to cite an analysis that puts its “life-cycle cost” at a bloated $30 billion. If such a study exists, we’d like to see it, because there have been no other life-cycle cost discussions on DOE projects in other states. If the figure is bunk, then the DOE should step up and say so in the interest of fairness and transparency.
During this cold standby, the facility and equipment are left to sit but are protected from the environment. The community can only hope that the DOE comes to its senses after completing its analysis of, ahem, “MOX alternatives” in 12 to 18 months.
Shuttering the MOX facility, and the defunding of the Yucca Mountain waste site by Obama five years ago, means hazardous nuclear material that could have been converted to fuel will be stored at SRS even longer. There’s no question the material will be safe and secure, but it’s unsettling to keep it at SRS instead of a thoroughly researched, remote, underground repository in the Nevada desert.
Again, politics at play.
And there are larger issues here than just the future of SRS. An elimination of the MOX project could jeopardize the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2011, which aims to take the equivalent of 17,000 nuclear weapons off the market.
Russia operates fast reactors that either can consume plutonium (during peacetime) or create it (as it did during the Cold War). Allowing Russia an “out” of the disposition agreement gives it no incentive to let go of any weaponized plutonium.
Now turn to today’s international headlines about Russia and its dangerous saber-rattling. Then ask yourself: Would you want that country to have even one more microliter of weaponized plutonium?
If budget cuts need to be made – and they most certainly do – there are assuredly better places to start than the MOX project.