Why Obama wants to freeze a program turning weapons-grade plutonium into fuel


(iStockphoto)

Tuesday’s White House budget proposal for the Energy Department contained this controversial detail: The administration wants to put the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in Aiken, S.C.,  into what the department called “cold standby.”

What is MOX, and why should you care?

It is an expensive program for converting plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial reactor fuel.  The problem? Critics say it doesn’t make economic sense -- the program has already cost up to $5 billion -- and that it would increase terrorism or accident risks.

The program has been able to putter along burning through billions of dollars because it’s had some powerful political patrons. The influential Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a fiscal conservative, put a hold on Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz’s nomination last year in order to push the administration for a commitment to the MOX project at the Savannah River site in his state. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), former House majority whip, has also lent his support in the past. The project employs more than 2,000 people in South Carolina. The Center for Public Integrity published a report in Mother Jones that gives a good overview of the lawmakers who have supported the project.

The MOX program was originally proposed as a way to fulfill the mutual U.S.-Russia commitment made in 2000 to eliminate 34 metric tons of plutonium, enough to provide for 17,000 nuclear weapons.

But critics say there are better ways to deal with the plutonium. The Union of Concerned Scientists said Tuesday that it has long been concerned about the MOX program’s "significant security and safety risks, in addition to its massive cost."

UCS estimates are high, at $30 billion (the Web site of the Center for Public Integrity notes an internal DOE report that says finishing and operating the plant would cost an additional $25 billion to $30 billion). Even the lowest estimates say completing the project would require at least $3 billion to $4 billion more than what’s been spent already. In 2004, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration estimated the project would cost $1.6 billion and be complete by 2007.

"The MOX strategy would have greatly increased near-term risks by making it easier for terrorists to steal plutonium during processing, transport or storage at reactors," UCS senior scientist Edwin Lyman said in a statement Tuesday. "The DOE has already wasted billions on this risky project. It’s time to pursue a cheaper and safer alternative.”

This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has signaled its lack of enthusiasm for the MOX plant. "This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, though, due to cost growth and fiscal pressure," said last year’s budget proposal from the administration.

And in his confirmation hearings last year, Moniz sidestepped a question about it. "All I can say, sir, is that, you know, I would need to be confirmed, look at what we're doing, look at the path forward, look at what the administration proposes, and then work with you and others to push through our commitment to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium."

On Tuesday, the proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 went further: "Following a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the Budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina into cold-standby. NNSA is evaluating alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost effectively."

This project turns an old saying --  that the president proposes and Congress disposes – on its head. On MOX, the president would dispose of the program, yet Congress might re-propose.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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