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

 

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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