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Swinging the Axe at MOX

One of the most vexing aspects of President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget request (as regards topic of blog, naturally) is the deep cut made to MOX facility construction in South Carolina. This is being built at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site and is about 60 percent complete.

But let’s back up. What is the MOX facility? For that matter, what’s MOX? (link to NEI’s member site – you can see the whole thing if you’re a member – but this is the key part)

Shaw AREVA MOX Services is the prime contractor for the design, construction and startup of the Energy Department’s mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility being built at DOE’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. Under a program managed by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the MOX plant will help dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons grade plutonium by blending it into fuel for commercial power reactors

And here’s the thing or at least a thing: we share this obligation with Russia, who participated in the megatons to megawatts program to downblend plutonium. This (really great) write-up at World Nuclear Association provides much more detail about the whole program, but we’ll zero in on the MOX facility part:

After environmental and safety reviews, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant (MFFF) at the DOE Savannah River site in South Carolina by Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster.  Construction started in August 2007, by Shaw Areva MOX Services.  It will make about 1700 civil MOX fuel assemblies from depleted uranium and at least 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, unlike other MOX plants which use fresh reactor-grade plutonium having around one third non-fissile plutonium isotopes.  US reactors using MOX fuel will need to be licensed for it. The MFFF is designed to turn 3.5 t/yr of weapons-grade plutonium into about 150 MOX fuel assemblies, both PWR and BWR.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer element, could it? It turns plutonium from destructive to constructive in a single pass. The nonproliferation aspect is a considerable upside – in fact, a key point.

NEI’s President and CEO Marvin Fertel called out DOE on this aspect during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee:

NEI supports completion of the MOX fuel facility now under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.  This facility, which is approximately halfway through construction and in which approximately $4 billion has been invested, is important to U.S. national security and as a demonstration of America’s commitment to nonproliferation.

A little more, on the value of the MOX facility to its many partners (and eventual beneficiaries):

It is estimated that the fuel produced from the MOX project would produce $50 billion worth of electricity and enable the federal government to eliminate the expense of storage and surveillance of the plutonium in the future.  Construction and operation of the MOX plant is the result of years of work and commitments with the Russian Federation, the state of South Carolina, and thousands of workers at the site and across the country.  Each of those parties made commitments on the assumption that the U.S. government is a credible partner capable of fulfilling its arms control and nonproliferation commitments.  Failure to complete this project will validate those critics of the government, and the DOE in particular, who claim it simply cannot complete complex projects, particularly those concerning nuclear materials disposition.

That’s – pretty harsh.

But not undeserved. It’s not just that the MOX facility completes an obligation with the Russians to convert this fuel. Or that DOE is risking a large blow to its reputation. Or even that it impacts workers in South Carolina in the midst of a jobs slowdown. It’s the middle part: “Each of those parties made commitments on the assumption that the U.S. government is a credible partner capable of fulfilling its arms control and nonproliferation commitments.” That’s important. That takes in all the rest.

Now, MOX has a science-y profile that makes it seem a safe project to swing a budget axe at. I get that. But this is not an examination into the love life of caterpillars (which, don’t get me wrong, still might be quite important), the MOX facility is a project with many moving parts – many goals fulfilled in several different important policy areas – and proof that America takes those policies seriously. If it doesn’t, it should – they have an existential dimension that requires a serious, committed response. It’s not a lot to ask for.

Note: Some of our commenters pointed out the MOX facility is only for conversion of U.S. fuel. That is correct – I knew that somewhere in my brainpan, but totally muddled it here. I’ve revised the post to make this clearer.

AREVA has a blog on the MOX facility here. Another good place (along with the WNA article cited above) to learn more about the MOX facility and MOX itself.


Damon Bryson said…
Not to be nit-picky, but the MOX plant is not intended to disposition Russian weapons-grade plutonium. It is intended to disposition American weapons-grade plutonium that has been declared surplus by DOD and DOE. The Russians are matching our 34 metric tons - retiring a similar amount of weapons material, but they are using theirs as fuel in fast reactors. On the American side, we decided to burn our plutonium in existing thermal reactors. In face, more than 34 tons has been declared surplus, so the MOX plant will have plenty of material to convert into MOX fuel assemblies once it is completed.
Steve Skutnik said…
To echo Damon's comments - the MOX facility is solely for U.S. surplus weapons plutonium. The 2010 agreement is for about 68 MT total plutonium (which is equivalent to a substantial number of bombs) - half by the U.S., and half by the Russians. (Damon also correctly points out the Russians will be disposing of their surplus plutonium through their fast reactor fleet, whereas the U.S. program has evolved to the thermal MOX route, formerly from a dual-track route looking at MOX and vitrification for plutonium not deemed suitable for MOX fuel fabrication).

The major issue here is if the U.S. fails to honor its commitment, the Russians have every reason to back out of their end of the bargain. Likewise, there is a flanking criticism by MOX opponents that we should just vitrify all of our 34 MT of material - notwithstanding the fact that A) The Russians would prefer to see a permanent destruction of the material (i.e., fissioning), and B) It would cost about as much to start over with vitrification as it would to complete the facility.
Anonymous said…
All political aspects of this aside, it is very distressing to me just how far over budget and behind schedule these sort of projects get. Why is it that other countries seem to be able to build nuclear facilities at half the budget and in half the time as the USA?
Anonymous said…
Why has no US nuclear utility agreed to use MOX fuel that this facility will produce, even with offers of heavy subsidies?

Also, the US-Russia agreement was signed in 2000, not 2010.

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