The United States has around 50 metric tons of plutonium from nuclear weapons programs it wants to dispose of. Until last week, it was pursuing a plan to do so by using most of this excess plutonium to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for power reactors. Enough plutonium for thousands of nuclear weapons would be used to generate electricity. Sounds like a win-win situation, right?
MOX and nuclear terrorism
Producing MOX fuel would make it easier for terrorists to steal the plutonium, which they could then use to make their own nuclear weapon(s). Neither plutonium nor MOX fuel is highly radioactive, and it would be relatively easy for terrorists to extract the plutonium from MOX. The MOX production facility would handle plutonium in vast quantities, and it would be impossible to keep track of it with enough precision—down to a few kilograms out of many tons—to make sure the small amount needed for a bomb was not missing. And transporting the MOX fuel to reactors would provide another opportunity for terrorists to steal the material.
An alternative approach is to dilute the plutonium with an inert material and dispose of it by burying it deep underground, making it hard to steal. This “dilute and dispose” option would not only be safer, it would be cheaper.
Yet in 1999 the United States set off down the MOX path. It has now half-finished constructing a MOX production facility in South Carolina. But it has run into problems along the way. The facility is now behind schedule and way over budget: an initial estimated lifecycle cost of $5 billion (in 2015 dollars) has now ballooned to $30 billion or more.
But now there’s some good news. According to the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request to Congress released by the administration last week, “beginning in FY 2017 the MOX project will be terminated.” This is a big step, but Congress will also have its say. The South Carolina delegation will press hard to fund completion of the MOX plant, throwing good money after bad.
The budget request also states that the Department of Energy will instead pursue the dilute and dispose option. It is important to note that even though the MOX plant is half-built, it will still be cheaper to dilute and dispose of the plutonium.
UCS has been working for years to cancel the MOX project. Most recently, UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman made the case against the MOX option and explored alternatives in his 2015 report, Excess Plutonium Disposition: The Failure of MOX and the Promise of Its Alternatives.
At the same time, UCS has also sought to make the MOX plant less susceptible to theft should the project proceed. For over a decade, Ed has been providing expert assistance to local citizens’ groups that legally challenged the MOX plant licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There have been some positive outcomes: the NRC licensing board required the plant owner to strengthen its plan for plutonium monitoring. However, the licensing board did not require the owner to have a NRC-approved cybersecurity plan in place to protect its computerized monitoring system from hackers. But this won’t matter if the United States truly lays the MOX plan to rest.
Of course, UCS will not let up on its efforts until it is clear the program will not be resurrected.
Featured photo: The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction. (Source: Friends of the Earth)