By Linda Pentz Gunter
After wasting $7.6 billion on a plan to manufacture a fuel that no commercial US nuclear reactor is designed to use, the US Department of Energy finally indicated last week that it will cancel the facility still under construction. That’s the (only partially — given the vast expense) good news. The bad news is that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would instead like to use the site to make nuclear weapons.
What got canceled was a long-overdue, vastly over-budget and totally unneeded MOX fuel fabrication plant (pictured above the headline in a photo by High Flyer © 2018.) The now abandoned MOX plant would have combined surplus US weapons plutonium left over from the Cold War with uranium extracted from irradiated commercial reactor fuel, into mixed-oxide or MOX fuel. The fuel was slated to be used in commercial reactors. (Technically, the MOX plant will only be officially canceled 30 days after the May 10 submission of the waiver letter to Congress. But there is little doubt there will be any change in the decision.)
The new proposal would turn one boondoggle — that at least had an albeit flawed non-proliferation agenda — into an overtly dangerous, and some argue unnecessary, proliferation operation. The South Carolina site would be converted into a plutonium pit production facility. Pits are the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons.
“Siting of new factories at SRS or elsewhere to produce the plutonium components of nuclear weapons is a provocative move that will further stimulate a nuclear arms race and result in a host of nuclear waste and toxic waste streams,” said Tom Clements, director of the public interest organization Savannah River Site Watch, in a press statement he released on May 10. Clements however, welcomed the cancelation of the MOX plant.
The MOX scheme was originally established as a joint project with Russia because Russia refused to vitrify or “immobilize” its surplus plutonium — the method preferred by the US at the time. A joint US-Russia agreement signed by the two countries in 2000, with several amended protocols signed in subsequent years, allowed the US to immobilize only part of its surplus plutonium inventory, while converting the rest to MOX. Immobilization would have led to burial rather than the re-use of plutonium in the civilian sector. Re-use crosses an arms control line and increases proliferation risks. In 2002, US immobilization plans were canceled in favor of all-MOX. By 2016, as US-Russian relations worsened, Russia suspended implementation of the agreement.