COLUMBIA - The federal government's plan to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium at the Savannah River Site in Aiken may be delayed because a similar Russian program "has slipped," federal budget documents say.
The $4 billion program, which would convert plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors, began in 2000 when the United States and Russia agreed to each dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX.
Funding and design plans have moved in the United States, but the Russians have said they need money for the program and have objected to various aspects of the process, officials said.
"While the U.S. program has progressed according to schedule, the Russian program has slipped," Energy Department officials said of the budget request. "Due to the Congressional mandate that the U.S. and Russian programs must proceed in parallel, the U.S. program may have to be delayed slightly in order to allow the Russian program to catch up to the U.S. program schedule. The exact timing cannot be determined until detailed technical discussions take place with the Russians."
President Bush has asked for $402 million next year for the MOX program at the former nuclear weapons complex in Aiken. The program is currently undergoing safety and environmental reviews.
Ed Lyman, president of Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based, nonproliferation group, said the agency's statement in its budget is "the first admission that the two programs are getting so out of whack that it may actually require the U.S. to slow down its program here."
Lyman's group opposes MOX and wants the plutonium to be disposed through a process of immobilization and permanent storage.
Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a scientific group which has studied nuclear issues.
"Very unfortunately, what is happening is all the plutonium is just sitting around and I believe it may sit around for a lot longer than the MOX program envisages," Makhijani said.
Makhijani said three major problems have stalled Russian progress: a lack of money, objections over how the fuel will be designed and disagreement over who is liable if a major accident occurs.
"Until these three issues are resolved, I don't see how there can be anything but delays," he said.
A law passed by Congress last year allows South Carolina to collect penalties of $1 million a day, up to $100 million per year, from the agency if the MOX plant does not produce at least one ton of the fuel by 2011. Officials hope for the plant to produce MOX by 2009.
If the program is unsuccessful by 2017, the law requires that all plutonium in the state be immediately removed.