The U.S. Department of Energy budget for the next fiscal year places a project at the Savannah River Site to convert weapons grade plutonium to nuclear reactor fuel on “cold standby,” according to the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.
The DOE budget was sent to Congress Tuesday with comments about its plans for the mixed-oxide project at SRS in Aiken.
“Following a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina into cold-standby,” the budget states. “NNSA is evaluating alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost effectively. The administration remains committed to the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, and will work with its Russian partners to achieve the goals of the agreement in a mutually beneficial manner.”
Tom Clements, a nuclear adviser to the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, welcomed the news.
“The MOX program is unsustainable due to run-away costs and the shutdown of the project must be carried out quickly while DOE immediately initiate options to dispose of plutonium as waste,” he said. “This is only a request, but if it goes through MOX is dead. We have long called on DOE to abandon the mismanaged MOX project and implement viable disposition alternatives and this request finally gets DOE on the right track.”
Clements has estimated that about $5 billion has been spent so far on the MOX program and that another $22 billion would have to be spent if the project was carried out over the next 20 years. No utilities have stepped forward to offer nuclear reactors to use any MOX fuel, Clements said, which has made the construction of the $8 billion MOX plant a facility without customers.
“With the prospect of more cost increases and no customers to use any MOX fuel that the MOX factory might produce, DOE had no other option but to put the project on ice,” said Clements.
The Union of Concerned Scientists also issued a statement praising the move to mothball the project.
“Converting this plutonium to a form that would be harder to steal or reuse in nuclear weapons is an essential long-term goal,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program. “But the MOX strategy would have greatly increased near-term risks by making it easier for terrorists to steal plutonium during processing, transport or storage at reactors.”