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former IAEA Director-General

MOX Fuel Plant to Be Mothballed
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Daniel Horner

The Energy Department announced last month that it has decided to mothball the facility that has been the centerpiece of its effort to get rid of plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program as the department reviews other options for that task.

In public comments by department officials and in budget documents for fiscal year 2015, the department said it was putting the facility into “cold standby,” meaning that work on the structure will be scaled back to activities such as protecting the facility and its equipment from the elements and keeping the site secure. Those activities would preserve the facility for some potential future use.

The facility is under construction by an Energy Department contractor at the department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is designed to turn the plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in nuclear power reactors.

Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium. In the United States, that mission is the responsibility of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Energy Department.

The NNSA budget request for fiscal year 2015 would provide $196 million for construction of the MOX fuel fabrication plant and another $25 million for other associated costs, down from $344 million and $40 million appropriated for the current fiscal year. Spending for Fissile Materials Disposition, the section of the NNSA budget that includes those expenditures, would drop from $526 million to $311 million.

During a March 4 conference call with reporters, Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the ongoing analysis of plutonium disposition options had not eliminated the current approach as an option. But keeping that approach would require the facility’s total life-cycle costs to decrease considerably, she said. Those costs are now estimated to be about $30 billion, according to the Energy Department.

Last year, the department said it was slowing down construction of the plant while it considered alternatives. (See ACT, May 2013.) The South Carolina congressional delegation, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), argued for an approach that would focus on trimming the costs of the MOX fuel fabrication plant.

Graham harshly criticized the budget request for the MOX fuel program, calling it “irresponsible and reckless.”

In its budget justification document, the Energy Department said that “the MOX fuel approach is not viable within available resources.” Its analysis has determined that this approach “is significantly more expensive than anticipated, even with consideration of potential contract restructuring and other improvements that have been made” to the project, the department said.

The estimated construction costs of the project have drifted upward over its lifetime. Under the most recent revision, made about two years ago, the projection is $7.7 billion, an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous estimate.

Harrington said the analysis of the alternatives to the MOX fuel approach would likely take another 12 to 18 months. She said the team was looking at other options for irradiating the plutonium in a reactor and options involving direct disposal of the material without first irradiating it in a reactor.

Work in Russia

With regard to the Russian work on plutonium disposition, the NNSA budget document said there had been “significant progress.” The United States is to provide some money to the Russian effort, but the assistance is tied to the completion of negotiations on a document setting out milestones for the Russian work. The NNSA budget document said that a contract is expected to be awarded during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The money for that assistance would come from unspent funds from previous years, the document said. The NNSA did not request any new funds for Russian plutonium disposition for fiscal year 2015.

The Obama administration prepared the budget request before the current crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the United States and other countries have declared illegal. It is not clear what effect, if any, the crisis will have on cooperation on plutonium disposition.

In a March 30 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a former Russian official said his impression was that the events in Ukraine would not affect the process. But once the United States decides what method of plutonium disposition it will use, the two sides might need to modify the 2000 agreement, he said.

Energy Department officials have repeatedly said they are committed to fulfilling the agreement.

Overall Drop

Due to in large part to the drop in the budget request for Fissile Materials Disposition, overall NNSA spending would decline by almost $400 million from the fiscal year 2014 appropriation. The request for the coming fiscal year is $1.6 billion.

Funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) would drop from $442 million in fiscal year 2014 to $333 million. The GTRI focuses on reducing the threat posed by vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials by better protecting them or reducing their quantities. According to the NNSA budget document, a major reason for the requested reduction is that President Barack Obama’s four-year initiative to secure the most vulnerable nuclear material by the end of 2013 “was successfully completed.” NNSA officials have said that the funding for the four-year effort was “front-loaded” into its earlier years.

The GTRI encompasses most of the work closely associated with the nuclear security summits, a process that Obama launched in conjunction with the four-year effort.

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for International Material Protection and Cooperation would drop from a fiscal year 2014 appropriation of $420 million to $305 million for fiscal year 2015. Spending for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D, which is responsible for research and development dealing with technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would fall to $361 million from its $399 million fiscal year 2014 appropriation.

The only part of the NNSA nonproliferation budget that would rise in fiscal year 2015 is Nonproliferation and International Security, whose portfolio includes nuclear safeguards and security. The request is $141 million, compared to the $129 million appropriation for the current fiscal year.

Posted: April 1, 2014