The End for MOX

May 1, 2015 | 3:12 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

Last week the Aerospace Corporation sent to Congress its new analysis of the costs of the mixed oxide (MOX) program and other alternatives to dispose of excess plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. UCS was the first outside organization to obtain and distribute a copy of the one-page summary of the analysis.

The results it shows are stunning: The cost to complete the MOX program going forward are $47.5 billion, 90% higher than the comparable estimate from just a year ago. And that is only if Congress significantly increases funding to $500 million per year, about $150 million above the current level of support. If funding continues a roughly the current level, the total cost would rise astronomically, to $110 billion and the MOX plant would not even start operating until the year 2100.

As I wrote in an op-ed that appeared yesterday in The Hill: “The new cost estimates for the mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel program doom this ill-fated program.”

UCS has long opposed the MOX program not only because of the high costs, but also because of the nuclear terrorism risks it creates in both Russia and the United States, the two countries that each agreed in 2000 to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium. For example, in the United States, the security requirements for the plutonium under the planned MOX program have been so weakened that the risks of theft would be far higher than if the material was simply left where it is now: in secure storage.

The good news is that there are viable, less costly and safer approaches to disposing of the excess U.S. plutonium. My colleague Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist, produced a recent report on MOX alternatives that identifies a number of feasible down-blending options for disposal of the excess plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico that would not significantly impact repository operations. The new Aerospace report suggests the costs of that approach would be $17.2 billion—still high but a far more reasonable figure. The Department of Energy continues to evaluate other attractive alternatives to MOX, like plutonium immobilization.

Now is the time for either Congress or the Obama administration to step up and cancel this ill-conceived, expensive program, and move on to a more affordable, less dangerous approach.