Energy Department Should Replace Costly Mixed Oxide Nuclear Fuel Program with Safer, Cheaper Alternatives, Report Finds

Immobilizing Plutonium in Glass or Downblending It For Geological Disposal Would Make More Sense

Published Jan 13, 2015

WASHINGTON (January 14, 2015) — While the Obama administration and South Carolina politicians wrestle over the fate of a grossly over-budget, problem-plagued project to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial nuclear fuel, physicist Edwin Lyman recommends some common-sense alternatives in a report released today.

"The Department of Energy has already wasted billions on this risky boondoggle," said Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and author of the report, titled "Excess Plutonium Disposition." "It's time to pursue cheaper, safer alternatives."

The project was originally proposed to fulfill an amended 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement that each country would dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium — enough for roughly 10,000 warheads on each side — by combining it with uranium to create mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel for nuclear reactors. The centerpiece of the troubled program is the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, now under construction at the federal Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, South Carolina. The plant was supposed to be finished by 2016, but its completion date has been extended to 2025. Meanwhile, the project’s estimated “life cycle” cost, including construction, operation and decommissioning, has ballooned from an initial calculation of $1.6 billion to more than $30 billion.

In 2013, the DOE acknowledged that the project's massive cost overruns and delays could make it "unaffordable," and last year the department planned to suspend construction while it studied alternatives. MOX project supporters in Congress and the South Carolina state government, however, compelled the department to continue to build a facility it no longer wants.

In the UCS report, Lyman draws on the detailed findings of a 2006 DOE study, not publicly available until now, to identify a number of feasible alternatives to the MOX plan. One option would resurrect an approach the DOE considered years ago to utilize existing facilities at SRS to "immobilize" the plutonium in ceramic discs and surround them with vitrified, highly radioactive waste — waste converted into a glass form — as a security barrier to theft. The DOE stopped pursuing this promising approach, called "can-in-canister," in 2002 to focus exclusively on MOX — a costly decision that has proved disastrous.

"Immobilization had the potential to be faster and cheaper than MOX," Lyman explains in his report. "However, in order for immobilization to be a viable option today, the DOE would have to invest heavily in its development to make up for lost time."

An even less expensive, quicker option than immobilization, Lyman writes, is downblending, a method the DOE has already employed to dispose of several metric tons of plutonium. It involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material. It then could be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a federal nuclear waste repository in New Mexico, when that facility reopens pending an investigation of a plutonium leak that occurred there in February 2014. Lyman's report identifies a number of downblending approaches that could be used to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium without requiring a change to the federal law that created WIPP.

Besides cost, there are security and safety drawbacks to the MOX program. "Converting this plutonium to a form that is harder to steal or reuse in nuclear weapons is a critical long-term goal," Lyman said. "But the MOX project actually increases near-term risks by making it easier for terrorists to steal plutonium during processing, transport or storage. And using plutonium-based fuel in nuclear reactors increases the risk of a serious accident."

Perhaps most important, there's no market for MOX fuel, which is far more expensive than conventional uranium fuel. The program lost its only customer, Duke Energy, in late 2008, and no other utility has stepped forward and committed to buy the fuel, despite the DOE's offer of generous subsidies.

Last April, the DOE released a report that evaluated certain immobilization and downblending options as well as disposing of the plutonium in deep boreholes. Lyman found the department's conclusions wanting. It entertained only a couple of immobilization options, he said, and dismissed them as unworkable. Likewise, the department only considered a small subset of the potential options available for downblending.

The DOE is conducting a follow-on study to its April 2014 report. Lyman writes that it is imperative this time around for the department to explore the full range of options for immobilization and downblending, which "are the only technologies clearly capable of handling the bulk of the current and projected future inventories of excess plutonium."

Lyman acknowledges that none of the alternatives will be easy to implement, mainly because the DOE has relied solely on the MOX option. Further complicating matters is the fact that if the DOE chooses an alternative to producing MOX fuel, Russia will have to agree to amend the bilateral plutonium disposition accord.

"Congress should allow the DOE to pull the plug on this misguided program," Lyman said, "before it squanders billions more and jeopardizes national security in the process."