Decision to delay mixed oxide fuel facility at SRS is reckless, misguided

The National Nuclear Security Administration's mixed oxide fuel facility under construction at Savannah River Site - shown here in a 2011 artist's rendering - was expected to open in 2016 and begin producing fuel by 2018.

On July 13, 2011, the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement entered into force after the exchange of diplomatic notes between Russia and the United States.

 

The world breathed a sigh of relief.

The PDMA would be the second of two of perhaps the most significant diplomatic agreements in our history. The first was the recently expired agreement to purchase highly enriched uranium taken from former Soviet nuclear weapons and convert it into fuel to power the American economy.

 

FOR THE PAST 20 years, half of all nuclear power generated in this country, or 10 percent of all electricity generated in the United States, came from weapons formerly aimed at us and our allies. Paying the Russians for their uranium made it profitable for them to cooperate, which was essential to securing the safety of these weapons in the several former Soviet states.

Now we are building a mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site to eliminate plutonium recovered from our own nuclear weapons. This is aimed at accomplishing the intent of the PMDA, which requires both the United States and Russia each to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium (enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons). The facility is 60 percent complete, but the president’s 2015 budget calls for the facility to be placed in “cold standby.”

There is something cavalier and reckless about a Department of Energy that would spend billions on a facility of such import only to abandon it when it is 60 percent complete.

The decision-making process has been very opaque as opposed to transparent. A case in point is the recent claim in area newspapers that “studies” show a $30 billion life cycle cost for the MOX project.

Special-interest groups have been using that number for some time now, but there is no publicly available DOE report that makes that assertion. In the interests of transparency, the DOE should make the report available, if it exists, or disown the figure because it is not credible.

The public believed that the DOE was negotiating in good faith with both contractors and elected officials to define a path forward when, in fact, the antinuclear crowd apparently knew that the decision already had been made. The good faith of the officials was met with duplicity on behalf of the DOE.

Life cycle costs can be very misleading, and usually are trotted out as a prelude to killing a project. You may notice there are no life cycle costs being discussed for other DOE projects in California, Tennessee, New Mexico, Washington and Idaho. There also are no life cycle costs provided for the alternative approaches to MOX.

 

THE ONLY COSTS pertinent to decision-making are “to-go” costs from this point forward. Those costs should be incurred costs and avoided costs. They should not include sunk costs or costs that will be incurred regardless of the decision to proceed or not with MOX.

The DOE spent years ruminating on the best approaches to eliminate excess plutonium, a goal everyone agrees is laudable. Now with the process that the DOE finally settled on 60 percent complete, they are returning to their ruminations to second-guess themselves? MOX is a proven technology, having been used in Europe for more than 40 years. More than 30 reactors worldwide are using MOX fuel.

But the DOE now wants us to believe it will be cheaper to try some new technology approach (which they will not share with us) that apparently will not satisfy the terms of the PMDA, which specifies “eliminating” plutonium. The agreed-upon and essentially only ways to do that are to use fast reactors (Russians) and MOX (U.S.).

 

THAT BRINGS US to reckless.

The decision is reckless because we will lose a skilled work force that has performed in an outstanding manner with respect to environmental and Nuclear Regulatory Commission compliance, safety and quality.

It’s reckless because we have an agreement with the Russians that provides for an inspection and verification protocol to assure us that the Russians are doing what they are supposed to do. This recent budget submittal endangers that protocol.

It’s reckless because Russia’s fast reactors can be operated either in a safe mode (consume plutonium) or in a Cold War mode
(create plutonium), and if we give the Russians an excuse to withdraw from the agreement, we will not know which position that switch is in – safe or Cold War. We also have no ability to respond with plutonium production of our own.

Why, at a time of great uncertainty and danger in Russia, the Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula would we want to tempt Russian President Vladimir Putin to return to Cold War politics or inadvertently force a miscalculation?

Reckless!

 

(The writer is executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, based in Aiken, S.C., and formerly chairman of the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy’s Plutonium Focus Area.)

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