Originally created 09/01/02

Uncertainties remain for both U.S., Russia programs



Most people have never heard of MOX, but the term likely will find its way into political science and history books.

How history will record the results of the mixed-oxide fuel program, meant to get rid of excess weapons-grade plutonium, is anybody's guess.

"The plutonium disposition program still confronts major challenges," said Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate at Harvard University. "Strong, sustained leadership from the highest levels of government will be needed for it to succeed."

The array of challenges arise from the complexities of the expensive program and the danger of the materials involved.

A down payment on the $3.8 billion MOX program in the United States already has proved a stretch. The economy is recessionary, and not everyone in Washington agrees on the program's value.

Making matters worse is the economic devastation of the former Soviet Union. Russia has made little progress in committing financially to its own efforts.

A 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia stipulated that plutonium-reduction efforts, which ultimately would remove 34 tons from each side, be under way in the next five years.

"There's not a snowball's chance in hell either country can be ready by 2007," Mr. Bunn said, although the United States is well ahead of Russia.

At this year's G-8 Summit, a gathering of leaders from the world's wealthiest countries, $20 billion was committed to be applied to Russia's more expensive effort. The money is to be spent during the next 10 years, much of it to safeguard the plutonium from seizure by terrorists.

Finding reactors

The Department of Energy has said it intends to eliminate as much as 3 1/2 tons of plutonium each year by 2019. So far, however, only two nuclear power plants, with a total of four reactors, have signed on to the MOX project. They are owned by Duke Energy, whose affiliate is the designer of the fuel fabrication plant, Duke COGEMA Stone & Webster.

Critics say more reactors are needed.

"A minimum of three new reactors - and probably four - would be needed to accommodate another 1.5 (tons) per year without exceeding the current maximum core loading," wrote Edwin S. Lyman, the scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, in a recent report.

Political woes

As the slow licensing and authorization process continues, anti-nuclear groups are challenging the MOX project in court.

Glenn Carroll, the coordinator for Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, supports immobilization, which entombs plutonium in glass-filled stainless steel casks. She said it's safer than MOX.

"Our goal is to stop MOX and get immobilization back," she said. "A project as elaborate, expensive, risky and inefficient as MOX is pretty much doomed from the start. If we are sincere about safeguarding plutonium from use as weapons, immobilization is the obvious, cheap and straightforward path."

The plan is for Duke COGEMA to achieve construction authorization by 2003 or early 2004, but if the courts delay that, the rest of the process probably will be slowed.

Expansion

In the long run, Mr. Bunn said, the MOX project will be an expensive failure if the program is not expanded. He said the United States and Russia each have more than 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in various forms.

Ms. Carroll said it seems self-defeating that the government is considering SRS as a site for creating new nuclear bomb triggers, also known as plutonium pits, in 2020 - a year after the MOX project is to be completed.

"Now it seems the plan may be to consolidate plutonium in South Carolina to make triggers," she said.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.