MOX is the right course

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Trashing the Element from Hell,” an article in the July edition of Scientific American, alludes to “experts” who are recommending alternate approaches to mixed oxide for the disposition of weapons-grade plutonium.

The article does not explain why the United States is engaging in the MOX fuel program and why we are making this trip, and where we have been on this journey. These are important aspects of the issue.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration made treaty obligations with the Russians in 1993 to convert weapons of mass destruction into energy for peaceful purposes – an initiative dubbed “Megatons to Megawatts.” As a result of that initiative, high-enriched uranium, which had been in Soviet weapons targeting the United States and our allies, was sold to the United States and blended down to make low-enriched uranium for fuel for U.S. nuclear reactors.

FULLY 50 PERCENT of our nuclear-generated electricity in recent years, or 10 percent of our total electricity generation in the United States, derives from former Soviet weapons. Negotiations between the United States and Russia as to the fate of plutonium-based weapons material resulted in 2000 in a plutonium management and disposition agreement, in which each country committed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.

The Russians were aware that many approaches that might environmentally immobilize the plutonium in some relatively intractable matrix, such as a ceramic puck, still left the plutonium in a form that could be processed and recovered for use in weapons if we ever changed our minds. All options for disposition of plutonium were multibillion-dollar projects, and in the end all options but one led to very expensive nonproliferation safeguards and security measures ad infinitum.

That one option was MOX. Exposure of the plutonium in a nuclear reactor fuel cycle changes the nature of the plutonium in such a way as to render it unattractive for use in a nuclear weapon.

In addition to the obvious benefit of reducing the attractiveness of the plutonium for weapons, thereby reducing concerns over proliferation and many of the costs associated with safeguards and accountability, MOX provides additional benefits. Thirty-four metric tons of plutonium can provide electricity for a million homes for 50 years, a product worth tens of billions of dollars.

NO OTHER OPTION has any cost recovery component, so MOX embodies the benefits of disposing of the weapons threat, creating clean electricity for 50 million homes, recovering at least partial cost of the program, eliminating the permanent costs of safeguarding the material, and representing an accomplishment achieved by two nations who were near nuclear war – allowing them to step back from the brink of unthinkable destruction and to instead use those instruments of war for peaceful purposes.

We made the right choice. We are more than halfway to completion of the MOX facility, and changing course would be much more expensive than staying the course. We need to demonstrate our commitment to our treaty obligations and bask in the comfort of knowing that mankind can make decisions of this importance and actually pull them off.

You see, the only things from hell are the uses that man chooses for the elements.

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

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IAmISaid 11/19/12 - 12:14 am
MOX....your taxpayer dollars completely wasted

Mr. Wolfe conveniently neglects to mention that eSRS (as it likes to call itself these days) has zero - nil - nada - none - no customers committed to purchasing MOX fuel. He conveniently neglects to mention that conventional light water reactors cannot run MOX fuel without extensive modifications. And he conveniently neglects to mention that MOX fuel will cost far more to produce than can possibly be recovered in sales to commercial reactors.

MOX is, and always will be, a vast boondoggle. No amount of dissembling by SRS's publicist will change the fact that as taxpayers, we are going to to get creamed, and creamed good, by MOX. Rah rah rah, Mr. Wolfe.

GiantsAllDay 11/20/12 - 12:58 pm
To iamisaid

As I was reading Mr. Wolfe's letter concerning MOX I was thinking along the same lines as you. The reason for MOX and the science behind it has not changed. We have known about this for almost 10 years. He must have cut and pasted the info from an old article. So why would this Wolfe guy chose to go over this old information with us NOW at this time? Because their backs are against the wall, they're on the ropes and public support is waning. MOX fuel burns hotter than the fuel being used now. I'm talking linear heat rate (kw/ft). I can't read the minds of the management of Duke power or TVA, but maybe this is one of the reasons why they have no interest. Has the NRC given the OK for MOX fuel in commercial reactors? They may eventually but not without documentation that it is within the bounds of the plant's operating license and technical specifications. (more $$$). I'll be very generous here and assume that TVA expresses interest down the road. TVA is the most likely because they are tied to the federal government so they may be forced to take it. How is MOX going to compete with the price of the existing fuel sources? The price of the MOX facility is NOT the final number! This place already has a history of cost overruns. Cost overruns are inherent in the construction of a nuclear facility. Add that to the fact that the friggin' government is the building it!! No one knows the final number. So now, Clint has this fuel that costs a gazillion times more to make than plutonium free fuel being used now. Clint will have to drop his price far below his cost in order to get a sucker utility interested. The taxpayer will eat the rest. If this fuel is loaded into a commercial reactor before Clint and I are dead, I will buy him dinner and say "well done". But my belief is this will be the K-Area cooling tower times a million. The most likely scenario is that when this whole thing falls apart, Wolfe, Flowers, Dohse, Dearolph, etal will be retired somewhere in the Carrebean on the beach with an umbrella drink. I hope they toast the taxpayers, because we paid for it.

KasparHauser 11/23/12 - 11:36 am
News Flash: White Collar Welfare Cadillac Threatened!!

I note the famed Professor Harold Hill, er,... Clinton R. Wolfe, P.hD (whooooo!!) never actually addressed the facts of the experts he cavalierly dismisses in his first paragraph.

Reading his 'rebuttal' between the lines, the alleged commercial benefit of MOX is a red herring, as opposed to the political benefit of having all the players in the production, burning, and storage of spent fuel getting a cut of the action, and possibly supporting the project. As Rickover is supposed to have quipped, "Fish don't vote."

Also, that payback argument sounds like all the Bush administration folk who so strongly implied the war in Iraq would cost the US very little.

I had hoped we had learned a little from that little experience...

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