Too much is at stake to throw MOX nuclear project into jeopardy

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In recent weeks, critics of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear nonproliferation project have been repeating criticisms that are not worthy of an enlightened discussion of the merits of the program.

A $6.8 billion mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel plant is under construction at Savannah River Site. The fuel is a key part of a plutonium disposition agreement between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium each from their respective nuclear weapons stockpiles.

MIXING PLUTONIUM oxide with uranium oxide produces MOX fuel that can generate clean electricity in a nuclear power plant. The United States and Russia agreed to this technology after thorough evaluation of other methods of plutonium disposition. Every option would have cost billions of dollars to implement and cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually to provide surveillance, inspection, and security forever – all except one – MOX.

Use of plutonium in MOX fuel changes it in a way that makes it unattractive for nuclear weapons, so the plutonium is not just buried, immobilized or stored – it is eliminated from use in weapons.

Critics, such as Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., say the fuel is dangerous, that the government has no customers for it, and that the project will cost more than estimated.

Let’s address these one at a time.

The fuel is not dangerous. MOX has been used in more than 30 reactors worldwide for decades and more reactors are being planned to use it. The claim that the fuel is dangerous apparently is linked to paranoia concerning plutonium in general, and completely ignores the safe operating history of MOX fuel.

As for lack of customers, this assertion is way too early to claim, and ignores the purpose of this project,which is to eliminate plutonium, not make money. Obviously, if the nation can realize some cost recovery that would be a bonus, but the real prize is the elimination of the plutonium both in the United States and Russia. There will be customers for the fuel in the long run even if the government uses it for its own purposes.

RECENTLY, AN NNSA official told a Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness breakfast gathering of more than 100 people that negotiations are intensifying with at least two different utilities. There is also the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has expressed interest in burning MOX fuel in its reactors.

As for the concern that the project will cost more than estimated, that is a virtual certainty. There are a number of reasons for this, many of which are related to the 30-year hiatus in nuclear construction in this country. Rather than speculate, we can assume that the costs of the MOX project would increase at least as much as similar non-nuclear projects over the same time period.

THERE WERE three construction projects associated with this program – the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOFFF); a Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF); and a Waste Solidification Building. Since 2005, the Handy-Whitman index of utility construction projects in the southeastern United States shows costs increasing by about one-third. Some components, such as electrical equipment and transformers, have greatly increased by approximately 72 percent and 45 percent, respectively, over the same period.

The budget challenges are described in President Obama’s 2013 budget request to Congress, which identified several “significant challenges” to constructing the MOX plant because of unexpected market and economic conditions. Over the years through several reviews, NNSA has reported to Congress that project reserves have been used to make up for funding shortfalls.

As a result of these issues, and because of a dated budget baseline first written in 2005, the contractor has been asked to recalculate a new budget baseline based on risk management and current market prices and conditions. While this will project an increase in the overall cost of the MOX project, it will reflect a more accurate cost accounting and estimation of the project. For example, in 2005, diesel fuel was $1.35 a gallon. In 2012, diesel fuel was more than $4 a gallon, an astounding increase in cost. This raises the cost of everything, including materials, transportation and fabrication.

HOWEVER, THE government has an alternate concept it is pursuing called a “preferred alternative,” which eliminates the need for the PDCF and instead modifies existing facilities to provide plutonium in the appropriate form to the MOFFF. This has the potential to lower the final cost of the program by a significant amount.

In any event, it is reckless and foolish to talk about terminating the program because of costs since the facility is more that 60 percent complete. It will cost a lot less to finish than to start over on another multibillion-dollar program that can’t really eliminate the plutonium threat the way that MOX can. Russia currently is ahead of us in progress toward eliminating their plutonium, but it has made it clear that it will not eliminate its stockpile until America is ready to do likewise. The programs are, therefore, inextricably linked.

ON DEC, 3, 2012, barely two months ago, President Obama gave a talk at the National War College in Washington, D.C. His remarks were delivered on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar initiative, which the president called one of the smartest and most successful national security programs.

He lauded the visionary leadership of the two former senators, Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. (Yes, in those days it was OK for members of opposite parties to work together for the good of the country.) He urged the nation to be vigilant with regard to the nonproliferation theme of Nunn-Lugar and to continue to invest in people and technology: “We have to sustain the partnerships we have, and that includes Russia.” The president also said, “It took decades – and extraordinary sums of money – to build those arsenals. It’s going to take decades – and continued investments – to dismantle them.”

The president is right. Rep. Markey is wrong.

(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)

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SCEagle Eye
SCEagle Eye 02/17/13 - 08:57 am
MOX is dying due to upcoming cuts

A look at the last newsletter posted on line for the group that Mr. Wolfe is with reveals his funding comes, in part, comes from the company building the MOX plant - Shaw AREVA MOX Services, Inc. - and from other SRS contractors, including Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. No wonder he continually goes to bat for the company that’s making billions from the federal government on the dodgy MOX project.

Riverman1 02/17/13 - 11:28 am
Hanniford Tank Now Leaking

A very good possibility is the MOX facility will never be completed, but the wastes will continue to be sent here as I've said repeatedly. Politically, SC and GA because our voters and leaders are Republican, are persona non gratis nationally when decisions concerning nuclear waste are made. The Democratic administration is perfectly fine with nuclear wastes building up here instead of Nevada where it should be.

The news now is the Hanniford plant in Washington state is leaking radioactive wastes into the environment. How long before the ancient tanks at SRS start releasing radioactivity into the water and air?

My proposal since we are likely to get the wastes from all over the world and will have no way to store it is to lobby for a Yucca Mt. like investment here. If the waste is never sent here, that's even better, but that's not what's going to happen.

It's going to cost a fortune to build a permanent repository here because of the SRS location on the river, but the federal government is already ignoring the location on the river with the waste being sent here.

We need a billion dollar investment here at SRS to permanently store the wastes. Without a permanent solution nothing should be allowed to be sent here to sit in leaky tanks.

Atomikrabbit 02/17/13 - 11:31 am
Swords into plowshares

You may not like Mr. Wolfe's affiliations, but what he says makes perfect sense.

Are you familiar with the Megatons-to-Megawatts program which, "from 1995 through December 2012, 472.5 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium from Russian nuclear warheads have been recycled into low-enriched-uranium fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants. This is the equivalent of eliminating 18,899 nuclear warheads." During that period, 10% of all US electricity (50% of all nuclear generation) was produced from recycled Russian bombs.

This program is similar, except eliminating Pu warheads on both sides.

EagleEye, what would be your solution for permanently eliminating 68 tons of weapons-grade Pu, simultaneously producing massive amounts of emmissions-free electricity, and fulfilling our end of a hard-negotiated disarmament treaty?

SCEagle Eye
SCEagle Eye 02/17/13 - 02:35 pm
Then plutonium disposition

Then plutonium disposition program was never presented as an electricty production program until it started hitting a host of cost and technical problems. Ther initial, noble goal was to place the weapons-grade plutonium into a form not accessible for weapons, which can be achieved in may ways. This program, by the way, is not a disarmament program and does not drive disarmament in any way.

For political reasons, the most expensive plutonium disposal option was chosen - MOX. Weapons-grade MOX, which has have been been used commercially anywhere in the world and is regarded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commissiion as a new fuel form, will cost far more than an equivalent amount of uranium fuel. If someone wants nuclear-generated eletcrity, it would be far cheaper to buy uranium and use that than go to the expense and problems associated with producing weapons-grade MOX, which no utility may want to use. This is not an equivalent program to blending down weapons-grade uranium.

DOE should never have killed the option to dispose of plutonium in immobilized high-level waste to meet the "spent fuel standard" (which DOE has declared dead as it is sending plutonium from SRS to the WIPP facility in New Mexico and says this meets equivalent security standards ). But the hand of big spenders intervened and those who see MOX as a possible way into reprocessing and fast reactors cheered even when it was clear that MOX costs were shooting up.

An alternaitves disposition study is immediately needed but DOE/NNSA/AREVA will likely once again try to drag the program out and keep driving up costs, a strategy that may sound the death knell of MOX.

On the Russian side, the US has helped Russia get a new breeder reactor, which can produce weapons-grade plutonium when operated to do so. Sounds like a rotten deal from a proliferation stand point and Russia will do what it wants to do with its plutonium no matter what the US does.

namlive 02/18/13 - 03:06 pm
It is not paranoia that

It is not paranoia that causes the commercial industry to shy away, it is other factors. MOX burns at a higher temperature and creates a greater neutron flux. This means the reactors designed for lower temperatures and pressures would have to integrate a small amount with their regular enriched uranium fuel. MOX fuel will also produce more alpha releasing elements included more Pu. Currently alpha producing elements are not significant enough to require constant vigilance at power plants. This would change. They would have to change how they do things on a day to day basis, including buying new instruments and rewriting procedures. There is no cost benefit to using MOX.

Humble Angela
Humble Angela 02/20/13 - 09:06 am
"MOX burns at a higher

"MOX burns at a higher temperature and creates a greater neutron flux."

Not true. First, MOX isn't "burned" it is fissioned. Second, if you lower the neutron flux with poisons, the temperature goes down with it.

"MOX fuel will also produce more alpha releasing elements included more Pu."

Also not true. The fission products from MOX are beta-gamma producers just like U235. And it will NOT produce more Pu than is used...if it did, then we would have discovered an ENDLESS form of power....which would be a good thing.

"Currently alpha producing elements are not significant enough to require constant vigilance at power plants. This would change. They would have to change how they do things on a day to day basis, including buying new instruments and rewriting procedures."

Also not true. Unless there is a fuel element failure, the alpha producing elements would remain in the fuel core....just as the currently do. This would not change. No new instruments would be needed since all nuclear power plants currently have alpha detecting contamination survey instruments already, for in case there is a fuel element failure.

SCEagle Eye
SCEagle Eye 03/03/13 - 10:11 am
fate of MOX debacle?

Three questions to Humble Agela on the MOX situation:

How many times more expensive in MOX than conventional uranium fuel and what will a utility have to be paid to use experimental MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium? (WG MOX has never been used commercially.)

What's the best guess on how MOX will fare in the sequester and FY2014 budget request? Will it be suspended in the sequester, as reported, and then cut significantly?

Who in DOE, NNSA and Shaw AREVA MOX Services will be held accountable for the massive cost overruns and schedule delays? Will it be the usual duck and dodge and nobody is held accountable for the massive waste of tax payer money?

Jeff on the Hill
Jeff on the Hill 03/22/13 - 03:26 pm
To SCEagle Eye... your

To SCEagle Eye... your comment that ..."WG MOX has never been used commercially" is completely false. I personally know that it has, and is currently, being used in a reactor in South Carolina for several years to produce commercial electrical power. Please check your facts before spouting off.

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