Energy Department Expected to Slash MOX Program in FY 2017 Budget

UCS Calls on Obama Administration to Cancel Program and Ship Excess Plutonium to New Mexico Facility

Published Feb 9, 2016

WASHINGTON (February 9, 2016)—In today’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget release, the Department of Energy (DOE) is expected to propose shutting down the troubled mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel project to dispose of excess plutonium from U.S. nuclear weapons program. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has long called for canceling the program because it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to fissile material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

“It is high time that the Obama administration abandon the MOX program and move on to more sensible alternatives,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program. “There are options that will cost far less, be completed more quickly, and not create the unnecessary security risks inherent in the MOX-based approach.”

A number of news organizations have reported that the MOX budget will be cut significantly and that some excess plutonium currently stored in South Carolina—where the MOX fuel fabrication facility is being built—will be diluted and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico.

That approach would be consistent with plans to shut down the MOX program. However, in 2015, the Obama administration attempted to put the MOX facility in “cold standby.” Congress rejected that plan, insisted that construction continue, and provided additional funding for it.

Since then, several independent reports commissioned by the DOE concluded that the cost to complete the MOX program would be dramatically more than initial estimates, and that alternative approaches to disposing of the excess plutonium would be more affordable and less risky. Their conclusions were similar to those in a report that Lyman published in January 2015. That report proposed a number of safer, cheaper alternatives, including the option of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at the WIPP facility.

Over the last several months, CB&I Areva, a consulting firm hired by the MOX contractor, released a series of reports criticizing the WIPP approach and calling for the MOX program to be completed. However, those reports fail to acknowledge the serious problems, from massive cost overruns to poor management, that have plagued the MOX project from its inception.  

“The country deserves an approach to disposing of excess plutonium that is affordable, safe and achievable,” concluded Lyman. “It is abundantly clear the MOX program does not meet any of those criteria.”