Economics for the Earth Blog

DOE reveals delays in plutonium disposition program

Posted Oct. 9, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

Environmental review contract revisions postpone fate of mismanaged plutonium fuel program into 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Key decisions about the Department of Energy’s program on the disposal of surplus weapons plutonium face additional significant delays, according to documents released by the department. The delays mean that the fate of the troubled program to fabricate plutonium fuel, known as mixed oxide fuel or MOX, from surplus weapons material faces new uncertainties and will not be determined until well into 2014.

On October 4, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration  posted changes to the contract for the company reviewing environmental impacts of the plutonium disposition program. The changes indicate that important decisions on the future of the costly program have been postponed for a year and a half. The changes to the Environmental Impact Statement contract were placed on Federal Business Opportunities website. Key changes to the contract include the extended deadline and increased fees to the contractor.

The same document that indicates further delays for the MOX Environmental Impact Statement also states that the DOE’s “assessment” of plutonium disposition options, which was announced as part of the FY14 budget release in April 2013, will be delayed until mid-2014. This assessment is to review practical alternatives to the MOX program and audit the spiraling cost overruns that the program has faced since its earliest days.

Though no MOX customers have been identified, DOE is currently constructing a MOX fabrication plant at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina on the speculation that a utility will offer its reactors for use of the experimental MOX fuel.  Due to mismanagement the estimate for construction of the MOX facility has soared from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $4.8 billion in 2008 to $7.7 billion in 2013. Friends of the Earth estimates another $22 billion is required for MOX program, making it unsustainable given the current federal budget stresses.

One leading alternative to the MOX program is disposing of the surplus plutonium as waste. This could be done by packaging the plutonium with high level radioactive waste to create a theft-deterring radiation barrier and emplacing the waste in a secure geologic repository. Documents obtained by Friends of the Earth in response to a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that disposing of the plutonium in DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico appears to be much cheaper than MOX. Friends of the Earth supports disposal of plutonium as nuclear waste, as fabrication into MOX creates proliferation risks due to increased handling, introduction into commerce and challenges during reactor operation.

“DOE’s admission that decisions about plutonium disposition have been posted until next year indicates big trouble for the mismanaged MOX program,’ said Katherine Fuchs, nuclear subsidies campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “The stunning delays indicate that the skyrocketing costs, technical problems and schedules delays with MOX are catching up with the mismanaged program and could well spell its doom.”

According to the NNSA contract-change notice, issuance of the “Record of Decision” on the final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on plutonium disposition options has been delayed until April 30, 2014. After postponing release of the key document since October 2012, DOE currently lists the release of the SEIS document as being “under departmental review.”

Notes:

NNSA plutonium disposition contract-change notice in FedBizOpps, October 4, 2013

Attachment to contract notice: “Final Approved LIMITED SOURCES JUSTIFICATION”
[Note: This document, which includes details about the need for the change to the contract on preparation of the Supplemental EIS, indicates that the “Record of Decision” on the SEIS has been delayed until “approximately April 30, 2013,” but Friends of the Earth has confirmed from the NNSA contact that “2013” is a typographical error that should be “2014.”]

DOE’S Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance “SCHEDULES OF KEY ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS,” September 15, 2013

NNSA Plutonium Disposition Supplemental EIS website

Freedom of Information Act documents from DOE, indicating plutonium disposal in WIPP is about $100,000/kg, which is much cheaper than MOX, July 24, 2013

Friends of the Earth MOX life-cycle cost report, April 4, 2013 - $22 billion left to be spent on the overall MOX program

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



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