This week the House approved over $300 million for a Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River in South Carolina as part of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts, despite calls from watchdog groups to gut a program that has fallen far behind schedule, exceeded its budget and has no real customers.
The MOX program is part of the United States’ strategy to dispose of excess plutonium-based nuclear weapons by converting the weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel to sell to U.S. commercial nuclear reactors.
In 2004, construction for the site was estimated to cost $1.6 billion and was expected to be completed by 2007. More than $4 billion has been spent on construction, which is only 67 percent complete. Meanwhile, the site lost its contract with its only real customer, Duke Energy, in 2008 and hasn’t found a replacement buyer for the fuel product.
A new congressionally mandated report by The Aerospace Corp. estimates that if the project continues on Congress’ current funding schedule of $345 million per year, its life cycle costs will skyrocket to more than $114 billion.
The current funding is not even enough to sustain the project. In order to complete the project, the Aerospace report estimates that MOX will need at least $500 million a year.
Despite the evidence that the project is a money pit, South Carolina lawmakers continue to push for MOX funding in the annual Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, arguing that the site is vital to national security.
But watchdogs say they are using it as a pork barrel to create jobs in their districts, and that there are other, more reliable solutions to destroy excess plutonium without using MOX.
“The funding is just to keep the project alive and keep it on standby. It really requires almost $200 million more a year to move forward, so Congress is really just throwing money in a hole,” said Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
Autumn Hanna, a senior program director at Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that MOX has “become one of those pet projects for members and senators that are pushing for their home states and are unwilling to look at other options because there is so much money coming in to their state.”
For signing off on another expensive year of funding for a questionable nuclear proliferation project at the taxpayers’ expense, the House Appropriations Committee wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting examples of wasteful federal spending.
The MOX program was created under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000, which requires the U.S. and Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium each by using it as fuel in commercial reactors.
Lawmakers who support MOX say that the U.S. must continue the program to ensure that Russia abides by its part of the agreement and argue that it is vital to national security.
“The future of the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site is vital to our national security due to its implications on our nuclear nonproliferation agreement with the Russian Federation,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican. “This one-of-a-kind facility will serve as America’s means to honor the agreement between our two nations and allow us to force Russia to dispose of the agreed-upon 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Now, more than ever, it is important to continue construction of MOX, as tensions rise while Russia continues its hostile actions on neighboring countries.”
Stephen Young, senior analyst for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that Moscow’s current disposal approach could be reversed to allow the Kremlin to increase its stockpile of weapon-usable plutonium.
He also was critical of the U.S. approach.
“The process of creating the commercial fuel is risky. Once it’s in the reactor and irradiated, at that point the plutonium is safe from theft. But getting it to that point in the way the MOX approach does is less safe than leaving it where it is now,” Mr. Young said.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for MOX contractor CB&I Project Services Group, told NS&D Monitor last month that the contractor “vigorously” disagrees with The Aerospace Corp. report’s findings.
“At this point, it seems like someone is just throwing darts at a wall with numbers on it,” Mr. Wilkes said, adding that the figures are “inaccurate and unsubstantiated.”
Mr. Wilkes explained that the report’s estimates were extremely high because they calculated life cycle costs that include costs to construct, operate and maintain the facility as well as other related costs.
“By our calculations, it will take an additional $3.3 billion to complete the project, and it will be done in five to nine years, depending on the amount of annual funding appropriations. It is also calculated to cost $8 billion to operate the plant over its 20-year cycle. There is over $1.5 billion in equipment on-site and ready to install. Most equipment for the facility has been purchased, so it will be mostly labor costs from here on out,” Mr. Wilkes said.
Currently, the project has no buyers lined up for the fuel, and experts say that most nuclear reactors aren’t equipped to handle the fuel, nor are they confident in its stability.
“Basically, the commercial users have to make changes to their reactors to be able to use the fuel and, in some tests that were done, there were concerns about the MOX fuel not being reliable,” Mr. Young said. “When you’re using fuel in a reactor that costs billions of dollars to build, you want a very reliable fuel.”
David Jones, senior vice president for AREVA — one of the companies contracted to build the site — said that several companies are interested in the nuclear fuel, and that it is up to the Department of Energy to sign an agreement that would let MOX Services and those companies negotiate the terms of those agreements.
“On one hand, our colleagues in the Department of Energy are saying we need customers and, on the other hand, we’re pressing back, saying, ‘Sign the contract, and we’ll bring the customers,’ ” Mr. Jones told the Aiken Standard last month.
Experts say that there are other alternatives to MOX that would be more cost-effective.
According to The Aerospace Corp. report, the plutonium can be down-blended and disposed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico for roughly $17.2 billion.
However, WIPP has been closed for over a year due to a radiation leak in February 2014.
Mr. Wilson questioned the Aerospace report and said it reflects the Obama administration agenda to divert MOX funding to other programs.
“The Obama administration prioritizes unnecessary government spending of Obama priorities and projects over national security needs, such as the MOX project. The administration’s choice of the Aerospace Corporation to conduct the recent cost assessment of the MOX facility — compounded with the curious timing of DOE’s release of the study’s findings a week before the House Armed Services and Appropriations committees considering appropriations for this facility — raise concern about the administration’s intentions to fulfill our international obligations,” Mr. Wilson said. “Their findings, which are double the cost determined by the Government Office of Accountability (GAO), raise questions as to the accuracy of the study.”
Even if Congress fully invests in the project, watchdogs say there are too many unanswered questions to justify the costs.
“MOX is a failure on many levels. There are issues with security and the technology, and if it’s actually going to work, and if there’s going to be an answer to the plutonium problem even if the money is invested,” Ms. Hanna said. “The time is long overdue for the federal government to move on, to look into other options more seriously.”