Mixed Feelings on MOX

November 18, 2013 | 4:09 pm
Eryn MacDonald
Global Security Analyst

Congressional Response to the NNSA’s Budget: Part 2

The second in a two-part series on the nuclear weapons budget. Click here for Part 1.

The Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel project at the Savannah River site—part of an agreement with Russia to dispose of excess plutonium extracted from dismantled nuclear weapons—saw a significant drop in funding in the NNSA’s FY14 budget request. The $503 million request for fissile materials disposition, of which MOX is a part, was down $219 million, about 30 percent, from FY13. Within this, funding for construction of a MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) dropped from $438 million to $320 million. The NNSA says this is because it wants to slow the MOX program while the administration conducts an assessment of alternative plutonium disposition strategies. We understand that the assessment has been completed and is in the hands of DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, but it is unclear if they will announce the results soon or wait until the release of the FY15 budget before they reveal any conclusions.

The program is certainly ripe for reevaluation. Construction of the MFFF is now 3 years behind schedule, and the facility’s cost estimate has risen significantly, from almost $5 billion to almost $8 billion. When construction and operation of related facilities are taken into account, the total cost for completing disposal of the promised 34 metric tons of plutonium climbs to $18 billion, and this does not include the cost of other associated activities such as extracting plutonium from weapon pits to create the MOX fuel, or of disposing of spent MOX fuel. No commercial reactor in the United States has agreed to take MOX fuel, and the current Russian strategy for plutonium disposition will likely increase security risks, rather than decrease them.

Mixed Oxide Fuel, plutonium, Savannah River Site, nuclear reactor

The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Credit: Friends of the Earth, 2013

While the administration has been performing the assessment, portions of the Congress have had a chance to respond to the administration’s budget proposal. While Congress as a whole has not thought much about MOX and many key staff would be happy to kill it, the program has influential supporters in key committees who keep it alive. Chief among them is Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who sits on both the Appropriations and Armed Services Committees, and  who temporarily blocked the confirmation vote of Moniz as Secretary over the NNSA’s plans to slow down work on the project.

House actions

The House Armed Services committee notes its concern about the MOX project and agrees to the administration’s cut in funding, but imposes new requirements that attempt to save the program. It directs the NNSA to complete a study of ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency within the MOX program by April 1, 2014. The committee’s report explains that, while it is “concerned with the continuing escalating costs associated with the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, the budget request may not actually reduce costs to the taxpayer and will likely delay the disposition of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium.”

House appropriators also provide the requested funding, but specifically prohibit any “additional funding” to study alternatives to MOX. The House appropriators’ report notes the budget problems that MOX has faced, and the NNSA’s inability to get the project back on track, even with extra money provided by Congress in the past two years. Despite this, they say, “the NNSA has not described any alternatives which have not already been exhaustively considered or which are likely to result in any substantial cost savings to justify this pause.” Continued study of alternatives, the House appropriators say, will only delay the project further and divert effort and funds from the real issue: NNSA problems with project management and difficulties in limiting cost increases.

The Senate’s approach

The Senate, like the House, expresses serious concerns about the trajectory of the MOX project, but both authorizers and appropriators in the Senate argue that increasing funding can help overcome some of the problems. Primarily at the insistence of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose state is the biggest beneficiary of MOX program spending, the Senate Armed Services committee (SASC) recommends an $80 million increase to the requested funding for MOX, for a total of $583 million. Like the House committee, they express concern that slowing the program in FY14 will ultimately increase the cost of disposing of the plutonium. The SASC report also notes additional concerns that continued delay in the program could lead to renegotiation of the plutonium management and disposition agreement with Russia, and that it would leave plutonium stranded at the Pantex Plant in Texas and Savannah River Site in South Carolina. In the case of the Savannah River Site, this would mean that the NNSA would be in breach of an agreement with the state, and could be liable for fines of $100 million per year until the plutonium was removed.

Despite these reservations, SASC agrees to the NNSA’s proposal for a strategic review of the plutonium disposition program, with the caveat that it must include MOX, and that the study of the MOX program take into account both investments already made and ways to reduce costs and increase the program’s efficiency in the future. The extra funding that SASC recommends is meant to allow the NNSA to complete this study while still “minimiz[ing] any impact to the progress of the program.”

Like the authorizers, Senate appropriators also increase funding for the overall program, this time by $167 million, with most of that directed to a $111 million increase in funding to continue construction of the MFFF. The Senate report echoes the House appropriators report in saying that it “generally supports efforts to find less expensive alternatives,” but “NNSA has not provided this Committee with any information that would suggest a less expensive alternative may be available and the results of an alternative assessment would not be complete in time to influence the fiscal year 2015 budget request.” As a result, the Senate appropriators concluded that a slowdown will just lead to higher overall costs and further delays in the plutonium disposition project.

When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging

In part, MOX is a bipartisan issue. Staff of key committees on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress are clearly frustrated with the long delays and ever-growing costs of the MOX program. But at the insistence of key supporters who benefit from it, they seem resigned to continuing to fund the project. In addition, they argue that slowing MOX while searching for another way to dispose of this plutonium, as the NNSA proposes to do, would cause further delays and ultimately raise costs even more if another solution cannot be found.

This is not a good argument. There is already an alternative disposal method—immobilization—that would pose smaller safety and security risks than the MOX program. It could also be cheaper than MOX, even considering the massive investment already made. According to DOE, MOX was chosen over immobilization not for cost reasons, but due to the need to reach an agreement with Russia on the disposition project. However, now that it is clear that the reactors in which the Russian program will dispose of its plutonium are so-called “burner” reactors that are readily convertible to “breeder” reactors (which make more plutonium), there is little point in tying the U.S. program to Russia’s.

MOX seems like a perfect place to apply the first law of holes: if you find yourself in one, stop digging. The program is already far behind schedule and over budget, and if experience with other major NNSA projects is any guide, these problems are likely to get worse instead of better. The original rationale behind the program has been lost. Instead of continuing to throw good money after bad, Congress and the NNSA should cut their losses and return to the safer, less technically demanding, approach of immobilizing excess plutonium.