Source: US News and World Report | Bill Richardson
The 114th Congress is finally underway, and all eyes are now on the White House, which will soon reveal the policy priorities of its fiscal 2016 budget request. Pundits and bloggers alike expect, and sometimes cheer, stalemate: the president’s veto pen versus anything substantive passed by Republicans who now control both houses of Capitol Hill. This may be true for many issues that resonate with each side’s base, but there are issues of safety and security on which we can all agree. Nuclear non-proliferation is one of them, and there’s a lot in the short term to make us forget that real and concrete on-the-ground progress endures in concrete actions, not paper promises, that will make us all safer in the years ahead. The most important of these is the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, known as MOX, being built by Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration in South Carolina. During its life, the facility will transform 34 metric tons of U.S. surplus weapons grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. MOX is a first-of-a-kind facility in the U.S., and has reached a 64 percent completion level with exemplary reviews by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
And, under an agreement first signed in 2000, the Russians are matching us ton-for-ton, so that, together, we will have destroyed enough plutonium for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
The decision to build MOX came only after a couple of very extensive disposition analyses. Both DOE and the National Academy of Sciences looked at the issue during 1994-95, and came up with 37 different possibilities for dealing with the plutonium. Many were exotic, such as shooting it into space or burying it beneath the deep ocean floor. Some would never fly politically, such as “deep borehole” burial in states that would surely reject it. Even new advanced “fast” reactors were considered, but nobody who remembers the 1970s would ever countenance the cost.
So, DOE decided on a two-track strategy in 1997: A combination of proven MOX technology, and a program for “immobilization,” in which the plutonium is barricaded in a ceramic material that is then surrounded by vitrified high-level nuclear waste. The latter would have required the construction of a Plutonium Immobilization Plant with undeveloped technology.
In January 2000, it was my decision as energy secretary, after extensive environmental and economic analyses and public comment, to consolidate the surplus plutonium disposition program at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site. (Urban myth has it that Congressional Republicans steered the program to South Carolina to bolster Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who only first took office in 2003.)
Later in 2000, the U.S. and Russia signed the historic Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement that formally committed each side to the 34 metric ton threshold.
The new Bush administration decided in 2002 to go exclusively for MOX, and abandon “immobilization,” largely because of cost. Also, the Russians objected to any disposition pathway that preserved the isotopic content of the plutonium, leaving it “weapons grade,” no matter how barricaded it might be.
But costs escalated when contractors were pushed into beginning construction before the facility’s design was complete. That was the original sin of the last generation of nuclear construction in the U.S., and it was repeated here to the usual accompaniment of torrents of change orders. And the special regulatory requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission prevented any off-the-shelf replication of successful European MOX facilities.
Another urban myth holds that the cost of MOX has zoomed from $1.7 billion to about $10 billion, a 488 percent increase. That would be astounding, were it true, even for a complex first-of-a-kind nuclear facility. But, there was never any real engineering to support the low baseline number that makes the oft-repeated percentage increase so offensively large. Succeeding management teams at DOE just ran with somebody’s rough stab at finding a starting number. It stuck.
MOX has been on track for a long time, with its design and growing pains behind it. When ground was broken in 2007, there hadn’t been any new nuclear construction begun in the U.S. in 30 years. A sophisticated labor force and supply chain had to be built from scratch at great expense, and the president’s all-of-the-above energy policy will benefit for decades.
MOX is nearly two-thirds done, and the roughly $4 billion spent already is sunk and gone. We should use our brief freedom from election year politics to think long term, and not waste the next two years trying to kill what will surely be non-proliferation success story.