It sounded like a good idea back in 2000. Two decades after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium — enough for about 20,000 warheads — by combining most of it with uranium to create mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. Proponents boasted it was a modern-day fulfillment of the biblical call for nations to “beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be that simple.
The bilateral agreement resulted in the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, now under construction at the Savannah River Site, a 310-acre federal nuclear reservation near Aiken, South Carolina, that employs more than 10,000 people. The facility was originally slated to be finished by 2016, but its completion date has been extended to 2025. Meanwhile, the program’s projected “life cycle” cost, which includes construction, operation and decommissioning, has ballooned from an initial estimate of $1.6 billion to more than $30 billion. Why? According to the Government Accountability Office, because of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) “record of inadequate management and oversight.”
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. That didn’t sit well with some members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, who were able to secure a line item in the spending bill Congress passed last month prohibiting the department from putting the MOX facility in “cold standby” and providing $345 million to continue construction through September.
Given the MOX project requires about $800 million annually, MOX boosters will be looking to squeeze more out of the upcoming federal budget. Even if they succeed, however, there’s another major sticking point: There’s no market for MOX fuel, which is far more expensive than conventional uranium fuel. U.S. reactors would require modifications and security upgrades to handle the fuel, and the program lost its only customer, Duke Energy, in late 2008. Since then, no other utility has signed up, despite the DOE’s offer of generous subsidies.
There are security and safety drawbacks to the MOX program, too. “Converting this plutonium to a form that is harder to steal or reuse in nuclear weapons is a critical long-term goal,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “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.”