Energy Dept. Expected to Release Report on Troubled Mixed Oxide Nuclear Fuel Program

Science Groups Call for Replacing Program with Safer, Cheaper Alternatives

Published Apr 22, 2015

WASHINGTON (April 22, 2015)—Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is expected to release a commissioned study that will provide an independently verified cost estimate of the problem-plagued federal mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel program, whose mission is to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial nuclear fuel. The report is expected to peg the life-cycle cost of the MOX program at a minimum of $47.5 billion, nearly 60 percent more than the $30 billion the DOE estimated only last year.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM), DOE should cancel the program and replace it with safer, more cost-effective alternatives.

“The Department of Energy has already wasted billions of dollars on this risky boondoggle, and the cost estimates for completing it continue to skyrocket” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and author of a January 2015 report on the MOX program, “Excess Plutonium Disposition.” “It’s time to pursue cheaper, safer options.”

In 2013, 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.

Today’s report also will provide an independently verified cost estimate of an alternative to MOX called “downblending and disposal.” This method entails diluting plutonium with an inert material and disposing of the mixture at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a set of deep salt caverns in New Mexico where DOE disposes of plutonium-contaminated waste. DOE previously determined that this option would be the lowest cost alternative to MOX. However, for this option to be viable, DOE will have to regain New Mexico’s confidence in light of the plutonium contamination accident that occurred at WIPP in February 2014.

There are other disposition options that merit further consideration, according to UCS and IPFM. These options require plutonium to be “immobilized” in a robust ceramic or glass matrix.

The United States also should develop alternatives to MOX and downblending,” said Frank von Hippel, an emeritus professor and senior research scientist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security who co-authored a report published this month by IPFM titled “Alternatives to MOX.” “All will require immobilization of the plutonium, but in tens of thousands of cans of ceramic or glass rather than the tens of millions of precisely dimensioned pellets that would have to be produced by the MOX plant after the plutonium was purified to its stringent requirements.”

Based on studies made by the national laboratories, Lyman and von Hippel, who chaired the White House plutonium disposition interagency committee during the Clinton administration, say the DOE should determine whether the plutonium could be immobilized quickly and at a relatively low cost at plutonium-capable SRS facilities — ideally at the K-Area Facility where much of the plutonium is already stored. If that isn’t feasible, they say that DOE should consider the Waste Solidification Building, which was built to process plutonium waste from the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility. Finally, a small portion of the MOX building might be adapted for this purpose.

Once the plutonium has been immobilized, there are at least two ways it could be disposed of. The first method is the direct-disposal option DOE pursued before it was decided in 2002 to depend entirely on MOX. Cans of immobilized plutonium could be embedded in canisters of glassified, high-level radioactive waste that DOE produces at SRS. The second approach would be to place it in the 3-mile-deep boreholes that DOE is considering for the disposal of some of its compact radioactive waste forms.

“None of the alternatives will be easy to implement, mainly because DOE has pursued only the MOX option for more than a decade,” said Lyman. “Regardless, it makes no sense to throw good money after bad. Let’s put the MOX program out of its misery.”