New report questions MOX factory costs at SRS

Construction of a mixed oxide fuel factory is under way at the Savannah River Site. This photo is of the area before construction started several years ago.
Construction of a mixed oxide fuel factory is under way at the Savannah River Site. This photo is of the area before construction started several years ago. File photo/The State

Shipping the nation’s surplus plutonium to New Mexico for disposal would be hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper each year than relying on a mixed oxide fuel factory at the Savannah River Site to neutralize the potentially deadly material, a new federal study says.

The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, says it would cost $700 million to $800 million per year for the mixed oxide fuel program at the federal weapons complex in South Carolina.

But it says the cost for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico would be about half that annually. The study was obtained in advance of its official release by an environmental group.

The study’s findings have been anticipated as federal policymakers weigh whether to scrap the mixed oxide fuel factory or press ahead. The project at SRS is about 70 percent complete but has cost the government about $5 billion so far. It could cost $30 billion over the life of the project to make plutonium blended fuel for use in nuclear power plants.

Officials with the Department of Energy have taken an increasingly dim view of finishing the project, known as MOX, because of its cost. That’s why the study is important to help the DOE make up its mind.

The study said “it is vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible’’ on how to dispose of excess plutonium.

According to the study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the MOX plant would not only be more expensive, but also riskier than the New Mexico option. Shipping the material to the WIPP facility would be safer because it relies on a more proven technology than MOX, the study said.

“Risks associated with the (New Mexico) option are far lower than the MOX approach, since both the technology and the disposition process ... are far simpler,’’ the study said, noting that the New Mexico proposal would rely on existing facilities.

The New Mexico option involves blending the excess plutonium at SRS with other material before shipment. The radioactive material would then be shipped from SRS and stored deep inside the WIPP facility, which has old salt caverns for waste disposal. DOE officials said last month this method would make the material less likely to be obtained by terrorists, who might be seeking to create nuclear bombs.

MOX plant proponents are sure to challenge the report’s findings, as are environmental groups in New Mexico that oppose bringing more waste into the WIPP facility when it reopens. The facility has been shuttered temporarily since a radiation accident last year.

Building the MOX plant has been a source of debate in South Carolina for years. The U.S. offered to build the plant as part of an international nuclear weapons accord with Russia more than 15 years ago. Each country, according to the agreement, would get rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium that was available for use in nuclear bombs.

If the U.S. moves away from relying on a MOX plant to meet those goals, it would need approval from Russia. But the study released Thursday said that could be accomplished and is not considered a hindrance to scrapping MOX in favor of shipping to New Mexico.

“The federal government has a reasonable position with which to enter (nuclear accord) negotiations’’ with Russia, the report said.

The report said the capacity of the WIPP facility would have to be increased, but that can be accomplished through “transparent and cooperative discussions with the state of New Mexico.’’