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Key DOE environmental review of plan to use weapons plutonium as mixed oxide reactor fuel delayed again, signaling problems as options being assessed

Posted Aug. 1, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

Friends of the Earth: Mixed oxide fuel is 'massive waste' of tax dollars and must be terminated

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Department of Energy has once again failed to meet its schedule on the release of a key environmental document on the review of use of plutonium fuel in commercial nuclear power reactors owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

After multiple delays since January, the release of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Mixed Oxide fuel made from surplus weapons plutonium, known as MOX, had finally been set for July, but, as Friends of the Earth anticipated, DOE has again failed to publicly release the document. 

In DOE’s fiscal year 2014 budget request to Congress, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration said “Current [U.S.] plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable ... due to cost growth and fiscal pressure” and that the Obama administration “will assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies.” Given this affirmation that DOE will review alternative plutonium disposition strategies, Friends of the Earth and more than a dozen other public interest groups wrote to then Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in May and asked that no final environmental statement be issued. While DOE never formally responded to Friends of the Earth’s request, their failure to issue the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on schedule underscores the grave problems with the MOX program.

The assessment of disposition alternatives is an indication that DOE finds the current environmental review incomplete and no “Record of Decision,” which would formally embody the findings in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, is forthcoming. “Lack of issuance of the environmental documents means that there is still no official decision to pursue MOX in TVA reactors, a strong indication that TVA has balked at being forced into the controversial and dangerous MOX program,” said Tom Clements, southeast nuclear campaign coordinator with Friends of the Earth. “Lack of commitment by TVA to use MOX and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s review of plutonium disposition alternatives means one thing -- that the MOX program should be terminated immediately and that other options pursued.”

The cost of building the MOX plant at DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina has soared from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $7.7 billion in 2013. Rumors from inside DOE indicate that the actual cost could be closer to $10 billion. Efforts to get MOX costs under control have failed and no customers have applied to use the plutonium fuel. More efficient options for managing plutonium must be pursued.  MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium has never been produced or used on a commercial scale, presenting major challenges to DOE.

"DOE’s continuing delay of the environmental impact statement on the ill-advised MOX fuel scheme demonstrates that after almost a decade of throwing money at an unproven idea, DOE still can't show significant progress," said Katherine Fuchs, nuclear subsidies campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The massive waste of tax dollars on this mismanaged program should be ended and cheaper, safer, quicker alternatives for disposing of weapons plutonium should be immediately pursued." 

It is believed that a senior advisor to Secretary of Energy Moniz is coordinating the plutonium disposition alternatives assessment and possible alternate uses of the partially completed MOX plant. The advisor recently traveled to the Savannah River Site to discuss plutonium disposition issues.

Arms Control Today, the influential magazine for policy experts and decision-makers on nuclear proliferation issues, features a cover article in its July/August 2103 about the status of the troubled U.S. program to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium. The questions the current disposition strategy centered on plutonium fuel production and presents various cheaper and safer options for plutonium disposal.

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Notes:
NNSA website on Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

From Page S-IV of draft environmental assessment:
“The TVA does not have a preferred alternative at this time regarding whether to pursue irradiation of MOX fuel in TVA reactors and which reactors might be used for this purpose.”

DOE schedule of the release of key environmental documents, from the Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance, July 15

Contact:
Katherine Fuchs, (202) 222-0723, kfuchs@foe.org
Tom Clements, (803) 834-3084 or (803) 240-7268

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