Economics for the Earth Blog

Congress affirms problems and challenges with plutonium fuel program

Posted Dec. 12, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

Defense act warns that non-MOX plutonium disposition options may be pursued

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Tuesday, Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, noting that construction of the facility to convert surplus weapons plutonium into reactor fuel commonly known as MOX at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site “has been fraught with cost overruns and program delays.”

The passage of the defense act comes at a time when DOE appears to be finalizing an assessment of plutonium disposition options including MOX. This assessment should be completed in order for Secretary of Energy Moniz to decide on funding levels for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, which should be submitted in February 2014.

“The plutonium disposition assessment evidently recognizes the severe challenge in funding the MOX program and takes a serious look at disposal of plutonium as waste,” said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth. According to the Government Accountability office, the MOX program will minimally require another $19 billion over the next 23 years to be successful, in addition to the $5.2 billion already spent. However, according to sources inside DOE costs are likely to rise, causing more problems for this already troubled program. 

While the National Defense Authorization Act does not appropriate Department of Energy funds, a job delegated to the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee (of Appropriations), it is often indication about the status of DOE and Department of Defense projects.

The Joint Explanatory Statement that complements the legislation affirms that the “MOX fuel plant and related support facilities has risen from an initial cost estimate of $1.0 billion to $7.7 billion, and it is projected to be at least three years late in its initial operation in 2020.” The act authorizes “$360.0 million, $40.0 million above the fiscal year 2014 budget request” for the MOX program as other DOE priorities, like tracking bomb usable material around the world, remain underfunded.

The statement goes on to note that no customers have come forward to use any MOX fuel that might be produced: “There is currently no agreement with any utility to use the MOX fuel and it is not yet clear whether commercial nuclear power plants will even accept the MOX fuel at market rates or whether the Department of Energy will have to subsidize, at taxpayers’ expense, the sale of the fuel to make it competitive with commercially produced low-enriched uranium.”

An assessment by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the only utility named by DOE as a potential customer, to use MOX in its reactors has stalled and no date has been established for conclusion of the report. The release of DOE’s final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on MOX use remains frozen, and DOE reports that the final SEIS is “under departmental review.” 

Congress recognizes problems with the mismanaged MOX program and states “We believe the rising costs associated with the program, canceled facilities, missed deadlines, and questionable ability to produce fuel at market prices are unacceptable. We caution that further cost increases would undermine the feasibility and affordability of the program.”

Most importantly, Congress indicates that non-MOX disposal options may emerge and states that it wants to be informed of “actions the Department is taking or will take to reign in the program costs and, if necessary, consider less costly alternatives for disposing of the plutonium from retire nuclear weapons.”

“Less expensive options for plutonium disposal exist and should be pursued immediately” said Friends of the Earth Nuclear Subsidies Campaigner Katherine Fuchs. Ms. Fuchs went on to say, “DOE has already expressed its intention to sell MOX fuel to utilities at a discount relative to uranium fuel, even though it will be much more expensive to produce. Why should taxpayers be on the hook for a program adds to the risks inherent to reactor operation and is guaranteed to continue losing money when safer, less costly options exist?”

Friends of the Earth supports less costly and less risky plutonium disposal options, such as vitrifying the plutonium in existing high-level nuclear waste or packaging some of the plutonium for direct disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

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

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