Five Letters to the Obama Administration (and a Russian report) Raise Concerns about Stopping MOX Project

GrahamScottLtrA combination of concerns about nuclear nonproliferation, recent actions by Russia, proposed budget reallocation by the Obama Administration, and the unsupported declaration of “cold-standby” status for the MOX Project by Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Moniz prompted a surge of questions from seven senators and more than 20 Congressional representatives, the Chair of the DOE-designated Community Reuse Organization for the Savannah River Site, the president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, suppliers and others.

In a recent letter to President Obama following the announcement of securing 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan, Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated,

“While we understand the need to secure vulnerable materials, we remain extremely concerned about the reckless decision in your Fiscal Year 2015 budget that abandons the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) program at the Savannah River Site (SRS) that is intended to turn weapons grade plutonium in to usable fuel for commercial power reactors. Your Administration has failed to propose any alternative to the MOX program, which if shuttered will abandon 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in South Carolina and Texas for an indefinite period of time while the Federal government pays hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the state … The completion of MOX facility is paramount to the United States upholding the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) with Russia to dispose of a total of 68 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium- 2 14 times the size of the agreement with Japan.”

Additional concerns were emphasized in a letter from 21 Members of Congress to Secretary Moniz about the potentially significant national security risks incurred by the Administration’s proposed actions,

“At a time when The Administration is attempting to negotiate a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran, defaulting on our own agreement sends a conflicting message to the international community. Additionally, halting progress on MOX will allow Russia to discontinue efforts towards disposing of their material. This could prove dangerous for our allies around the world and jeopardize our own national security as environmental cleanup of the plutonium at SRS would be stymied.”

… and the appropriate use of Congressionally approved funding for completing the 60% constructed MOX Project facility without redirecting the money for placing the project on cold-standby,

“The funds were not authorized or appropriated for cold standby, and we request they be used only for construction as Congress intended. We are concerned that the intent of Congress is being ignored and as a result we may see a usurpation of Congress’ power of the purse.”

Prior to the recent international Nuclear Safety Summit at The Hague, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) discussed with Secretary of State John Kerry (video) the potential negative impacts to America’s global nonproliferation leadership if the Obama Administration’s FY 2015 budget proposal to Congress minimally funds the MOX Project and subjects the project to “cold-standby” stagnation while re-examining previously discarded options.

A recent report by the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies based in Russia clearly describes as unacceptable the Obama Administration’s consideration of alternative options to the agreed upon MOX process,

“It is evident that the eventual repudiation by the American side of the previously agreed upon method of plutonium disposition will have an influence on the implementation of the PMDA Agreement …  Immobilization does not guarantee full irreversibility since mixing plutonium with radioactive waste does not change its isotopic composition and does not exclude in principle the possibility of plutonium extraction from the mixture … A deviation from one of the basic provisions of the Agreement would hardly find a positive response from Russian experts who always asserted that a real weapon grade plutonium disposition is possible only through its irradiation in MOX fuel of civilian nuclear reactors thus assuring an irreversible withdrawal from weapon’s program.”

Five county officials in the MOX Project region stated strong reservations in a letter to Secretary Moniz about the Administration pursuing undefined alternative options other than honoring the mixed oxide process detailed in our agreement with Russia, and the ongoing weapons-grade plutonium security risks to their region from perpetuated storage.

“However, down-blending through H-canyon currently does not meet the definition of “disposition” in the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement. Thus, to make down-blending acceptable, U.S. negotiators will have to get that concession agreed to by the Russians. Clearly, all of this will take time, which means the plutonium will remain in its current dangerous form longer and be stored in our state and region longer.”

… and questions the Department of Energy’s undefined and undisclosed calculation of overall lifecycle cost for our nation’s plutonium disposal program and its application to the single program segment represented by the MOX Project.

“DOE officials assert the current “life cycle costs” analysis indicates the project is unsustainably expensive and less expensive alternatives will be evaluated. However, to our knowledge, DOE has not provided specific documentation to identify less-expensive options nor provided timelines to demonstrate a new alternative would remove plutonium from South Carolina faster than the current MOX program. Furthermore, documentation of life-cycle costs has not been made available to stakeholders. This seemingly contradicts the Administration’s strong stance on transparency.”

The MOX Project is designed to permanently change 34 tons of U.S. surplus weapons-grade plutonium into safe, stable, and secure nuclear reactor fuel to reliably power American industry, hospitals, and homes. By processing this 34 tons of plutonium into 1,000-plus nuclear reactor fuel assemblies, the MOX Project output would represent more than $20 billion worth of electricity (enough power for 15 million homes for a year) and create more than 4,000 American jobs.

U.S. utilities have expressed an interest in receiving MOX nuclear fuel, but inaction by the Department of Energy has stymied progress in this area, as described in this letter to Secretary Moniz by Dr. Winsor, Board Chair of the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization (SRSCRO) – the U. S. Department of Energy’s designated Community Reuse Organization for the Savannah River Site (SRS).

“A theme constantly used by those opposed to MOX is the lack of a commercial customer for the MOX fuel. The real story is that several of America’s largest nuclear operators have expressed interest in MOX fuel. However, the MOX contractor is unable to complete any commercial contracts until DOE signs the Commercial Agreement (also known as the Master Fuel Contract) that allows the negotiation of sales prices, terms and conditions. Bona fide negotiations of this Commercial Agreement, between NNSA and the MOX contractor, were completed more than a year ago, but DOE has provided no reasons why the Agreement has not yet been signed to date.”

The U.S. nuclear industry also encourages the Administration to honor its signed commitments with Russia and the American people to complete the MOX Project and demonstrate its ability to fulfill its obligations. As stated in this letter by NEI president Marv Fertel,

“To cancel, suspend or simply reduce funding for the project will, unfortunately, validate those critics of the Department of Energy who claim it simply cannot complete complex projects, particularly those concerning nuclear materials disposition. Unfortunately, DOE’s history with this and other large complex projects does not instill confidence in the commercial industry that the MOX program will be able to deliver commercial fuel to utilities on an agreed-to schedule. However, DOE can and should begin to reverse this trend, and begin to restore confidence by following through with the construction and operation of the MOX facility on a set schedule.”

Taken together, these letters provide a comprehensive perspective on the value of MOX Project, the negative impact of a “cold-standby” status, and the many benefits achieved by its completion as originally defined, approved, contracted, and funded by Congress and the Administration.

  • Mitch Gant

    Good article, but who in the public knows all this, really? The “misunderstandings” comes basically by a overwhelmingly anti-nuclear mass media which the public views the world and events by. If you want the public to get a fair enlightenment about nuclear energy you have to get on top of the media and DEMAND that they be impartial and educational about the issue. Outside of direct mass media nuclear Ads which I doubt are coming, that’s the only way nuclear is going to get a fair shake in the public eye.