The U.S. MOX Program: Going, Going, Gone?

March 10, 2014
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

The Obama Administration’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2015—released last week—held some good news. The Department of Energy plans to put the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction in South Carolina on “cold standby” while it determines an alternative way to dispose of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons programs.

MOX plant under construction

The MOX plant under construction. Photo: Shaw AREVA MOX Services

In 2000, the United States and Russia agreed to each dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium from their nuclear weapons programs. U.S. nuclear weapons contain less than four kilograms of plutonium, so the combined total of 68 metric tons is enough for some 17,000 nuclear weapons. Disposing of this plutonium would make it more difficult to reverse U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons reductions and would prevent terrorists from gaining access to this material.

The United States eventually settled on a plan to convert most of its surplus plutonium into fuel for power reactors. U.S. reactors use uranium fuel, but could burn a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxide, known as MOX. The resulting waste would be buried with all the other nuclear waste from U.S. reactors in an underground repository, once one is sited and built.

But this cure had some serious side effects—namely, it would be easier for terrorists to steal the plutonium during MOX production, transportation or storage at reactors. UCS has long promoted alternative strategies in which the plutonium would be disposed of directly. In one approach, the plutonium would be placed with existing nuclear waste, “immobilized” in a large glass canister, and buried in a repository. Indeed, the United States will have to develop an immobilization strategy for some of its surplus plutonium that is not suitable for use as reactor fuel.

But these security concerns are not what led to the decision to put the plant on ice—the costs are.  The construction cost of the MOX plant was initially estimated to be $1 billion, and climbed to $4.8 billion, and then to $7.7 billion. As Secretary of Energy Moniz noted yesterday, with operating costs, the project would top $30 billion.

What’s next? Cold standby suggests the end is near, but the South Carolina congressional delegation is not ready to give up. The administration will now take another 12-18 months to investigate alternatives. We’re waiting, with fingers crossed.