Energy Department Makes the Right Decision to Kill MOX Program

Statement by Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published May 14, 2018 Updated May 14, 2019

WASHINGTON (May 14, 2018)—Late last week, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted a report to Congress documenting that an alternative method to dispose of U.S. excess weapons plutonium would be less than half the cost of the current plan to use it as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors. By certifying that finding, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry will have the legal authority next month to stop construction of the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which obtained the report and publicly released it, has long called for canceling the MOX program because it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to fissile material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.

Instead of finishing the half-built MOX facility, the Trump administration—like the Obama administration before it—proposes to dilute 34 tons of plutonium from retired U.S. nuclear weapons with an inert substance and dispose of it at the deep underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. According to the DOE report, this “dilute and dispose” process would cost at most $19.9 billion, 40 percent of $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX program.

Below is a statement by Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist.

“Energy Secretary Perry made the right decision to terminate the misguided MOX program. Ironically, while the program was intended to reduce the risks posed by the large US stockpile of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons, it would make this material more vulnerable to theft. The alternative approach—dilute and dispose—will be far safer and more secure than MOX. 

“While the MOX program has gone well over-budget, we now know that the dilute and dispose process will be far cheaper. According to DOE’s comprehensive report the cost of diluting and disposing of 34 metric tons of U.S. excess plutonium will be less than half the remaining cost of the MOX program. This finding allows the DOE to waive the wasteful congressional requirement that it must continue to build the MOX plant. As a bonus, the agency can begin the dilute and dispose process much sooner.

“The dilute and dispose approach will not only be cost-effective, it also will provide sustainable employment at the Savannah River Site for decades to come. The DOE report estimates that the project will require more than 400 full-time employees through its completion date in the late 2040s. Secretary Perry’s decision to kill MOX is a victory for US taxpayers, national security, and South Carolina workers.”