Source: Aiken Standard | Derrek Asberry | August 30, 2015

Congressional leaders have requested documents and communication exchanges between the Department of Energy and Aerospace Corp., the group hired earlier this year to conduct an independent cost study of the Savannah River Site’s MOX project.

The request is based on beliefs that the study was improperly influenced by the Energy Department, and showed favoritism to one of the MOX alternatives of plutonium disposition, wrote Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

Wilson and others also took issue with a more recent study, the Red Team report, which states MOX, the nation’s current pathway for disposing of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, would need up to $800 million a year to be viable.

Meanwhile, a federal piece of legislation that funds the project is being debated in a Congressional Conference Committee as the Oct. 1 deadline to appropriate funding draws closer.

The letter

Wilson sent a letter dated Aug. 21 to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz. It was also signed by fellow South Carolina Republicans, Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, and Reps. Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney and Tom Rice.

In the letter, Wilson requested “unredacted versions of DOE’s communications, guidelines, memoranda, directives and constraints, both in writing and email form, as well as a summary of those conveyed orally,” in reference to the Aerospace study.

Aerospace, a California-based nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center, released the study in April. The study concludes that the lifecycle cost of MOX, which includes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction at SRS, is $51 billion with a projected completion date of 2044.

A downblending alternative, which would use inhibitor materials to slow down the chemical process, and then package the plutonium solution into canisters and ship them to a repository for permanent disposal, would only cost $17 billion, according to Aerospace.

Wilson’s letter states the study was not independent and that Aerospace’s work was conducted with “considerable influence and direction from the Department of Energy.”

“We are concerned that this interference limited the ability to complete an objective assessment,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson requested a response by Aug. 28 but has yet to receive one. Friday, his office reported it still expects a reply in a timely manner. The Aiken Standard also attempted to contact the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, on the matter. However, the agency responded that it “doesn’t comment on correspondence between a Member of Congress and the Secretary.”

The Red Team Report

Earlier this year, DOE commissioned the Red Team, a group led by Thom Mason, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to evaluate cost projections and possible alternatives to the MOX method of reducing plutonium stockpiles.

The study surfaced a little more than a week ago and states MOX would cost up to $800 million a year to make real progress, while downblending would only cost half of that if given the same timeline.

But Sen. Graham took exception, stating the report is “fundamentally flawed.” The repository that would accept the downblended material is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in Carlsbad New Mexico. But the WIPP is still shutdown due to incidents in February 2014.

Fire inhalations were the result of a salt haul truck fire on Feb. 5, and then workers were contaminated due to a Feb. 14 radiation event.

There is tentative projection of late 2016 for the reopening.

The Red Team acknowledged WIPP’s issues but Graham took it a step further, stating that even if WIPP were to open in 2016, the government would still need to conduct years of environmental studies in order to legally expand its capacities of WIPP to store all of the MOX material.

“The federal government would also have to figure out how to change the law governing what is legally allowed to be sent to New Mexico,” Graham said. “Also, will New Mexico residents be willing to accept plutonium given that DOE had walked away from the MOX program in South Carolina?”

Nonproliferation concerns

The MOX project is part of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. It has been noted by both Congress and DOE that if an alternative pathway is chosen, renegotiations with Russia would need to take place.

Sen. Scott, among others, said issues with Russia and Iran make renegotiations “unrealistic.”

“We have the opportunity to dispose of enough material to make 17,000 nuclear weapons,” Scott said. “To me, it is very simple and clear that we should stay the course.”

Graham agreed en route to criticizing the Iran deal reached by President Barack Obama’s administration.

“It should come as no surprise that the same Administration that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran that gives them a path to the bomb … would take another major step away from its non-proliferation goals by putting forward a study that seems to indicate that they would prefer to abandon a major non-proliferation agreement with the Russians,” he said.

Time winding down

Despite disagreements on the issue, the Red Team wrote that it is “vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible and secure consistent funding to prevent further degradation” of the plutonium program.

The bill that funds MOX, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is in Conference Committee where both House and Senate members are discussing costs for MOX and other items on the bill.

Scott said he and others have been in talks to make sure the $345 million authorized for MOX is used for construction only.

The bill will have to be signed by the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.