For awhile now, politicians in Washington, D.C., and South Carolina have been fighting over the future of the so-called MOX project at the Savannah River Site, located near Aiken, S.C. That fight started after it became known that construction of the multi-billion-dollar Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) project was well off its original course, to the point where it's now an undetermined number of years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
At least three studies have examined various aspects of the federal government's use of the MOX approach as the preferred method for disposing of approximately 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, which was called for as part of an agreement between the United States and Russia. In this "MOX" approach, the MFFF building would be used to convert that plutonium material into fuel that could be used to power nuclear reactors.
The most recent, so-called "red team" report was not overly positive about the MOX approach, or the related building project, which it says would need "as much as 15 more years of construction." (It should be noted that construction started in 2007, with an original completion target of 2016, and a budget of $4 billion.) The report states:
The Red Team concluded that if the MOX pathway is to be successful, then annual funding for the whole program (MFFF plus other activities that produce feed material and support fuel licensing and reactor availability) would have to increase from the current (roughly) $400M per year to (about) $700M-$800M per year over the next 2-3 years, and then remain at $700M-$800M per year until all 34 (metric tons) are dispositioned, all in FY15 dollars.... At this funding level, operations would only commence after as much as 15 more years of construction and about 3 years of commissioning.
Another Dept. of Energy-commissioned report released earlier this year—widely criticized by project supporters—calculated that if funding for the project remained at its current level, it would require another $9.4 billion to complete the MOX facility's construction. Moreover, the report estimated, given the current funding level, construction completion would come no earlier than 2043. That report was conducted by The Aerospace Corp.
Those ballooning construction cost estimates are just one aspect to the ongoing battle over MOX. According to the latest red-team report, changes in technology have made other methods for disposing of this material more viable and, supposedly, more cost effective than previously estimated. As ENR recently reported:
The (red-team) report suggests that a better option would be to dilute and dispose of the 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground facility in New Mexico. That option could be completed for about $400 million a year; it also could be done more quickly and would be less risky than the MOX option. The report notes that such "downblending" and storage of non-weapons-grade plutonium already has been performed successfully.
Former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is not impressed with any of the recent MOX studies. In a recent letter to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — sent after publication of the red-team report — Richardson called The Aerospace Corp.'s cost estimates "whimsical" and railed against some of the assumptions used in recent studies.
"What's worse," Richardson writes, "is the 'alternative disposition pathway' for downblended plutonium assumed by Aerospace and DOE. They magically conjure the appearance of an instant underground disposal facility, and cite the WIPP facility in New Mexico as a 'reference case' — whatever that means — to claim a much cheaper path forward."
As Richardson argues in his letter to Reid, WIPP remains closed, and has little chance of being used for the purposes of plutonium disposition. "In fact, as a former Secretary of Energy and Governor of New Mexico, I can assure you that WIPP, in our lifetimes, has the same chance of accepting weapons-grade plutonium that Yucca Mountain has for accepting spent reactor fuel. It is self-deluding to claim otherwise."
In conclusion, Richardson asks Reid to "re-baseline" the effort. "I would respectfully ask that you urge the Dept. of Energy to cut through the clutter and re-baseline the MOX project in a collaborative effort that yields a final and credible-to-all cost and in-service date. No informed oversight by Congress is possible without a re-baselining."
Meanwhile, South Carolina politicians are calling for DOE to provide documents related to the various reports, alleging bias by the agency against MOX.