Washington (August 20, 2015) — A new, yet-to-be-released Energy Department-commissioned study concludes that it would be cheaper and far less risky to dispose of 34 metric tons of U.S. surplus plutonium at a federal nuclear waste repository in New Mexico than convert it into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear power plants at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina.
The Energy Department study, obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), was produced by a team of experts from U.S. nuclear laboratories, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the commercial nuclear power industry. The team’s analysis is consistent with the conclusion of a January 2015 UCS report, which recommended that the Energy Department shut down the MOX facility — whose estimated life-cycle cost has ballooned from $1.6 billion to more than $30 billion — and ship the surplus plutonium to the New Mexico facility.
The unreleased report describes in detail the “difficult, downward spiraling circumstances” that have plagued the MOX program and contributed to the delays and massive cost overruns at the half-built MOX facility, located at the federal Savannah River Site near Aiken. High staff turnover, the need to replace improperly installed equipment, and an antagonistic relationship between the local federal project director and the contractor are only some of the factors undermining the project. The new report also notes that there are “no obvious silver bullets” to reduce the life-cycle cost of the MOX approach.
According to UCS, a better alternative to turning the surplus plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel would be to “downblend” it, a method the Energy Department has already used to dispose of several metric tons of plutonium. It involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material and then sending it to the nuclear waste site in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), for burial. The new report’s analysis supports that assessment.
Although WIPP is currently not accepting waste as a result of two accidents in February 2014, the report authors are confident that it will be fully operational within five years, which would not significantly delay downblending. The report also concludes that the downblending option provides opportunities to improve efficiency that could enable disposal of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium without changing the legally mandated cap on the volume of waste that WIPP can accept.
“The time for studies is now over,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist and author of the organization’s January report. “Congress should stop obstructing the Energy Department from shutting down the MOX program and allow it to ramp up the downblending program at the Savannah River Site. Otherwise, the government will continue to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year.”
Besides cost, the MOX program also has considerable security and safety drawbacks, Lyman added. “Converting this plutonium to a form that is harder to steal or reuse in nuclear weapons is a critical long-term goal,” he 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.
“The bottom line is the MOX program is too expensive and too risky to continue,” Lyman said. “The Energy Department’s own study supports that conclusion. Let’s stop throwing good money after bad and pull the plug on this $30-billion boondoggle.”