Measures have also been taken to safeguard and reduce stockpiles of nuclear-weapons-grade plutonium. In 2000, both countries signed an accord to convert their plutonium into a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that could be used in civilian reactor fuel assemblies.
In order to convert our plutonium stockpiles into MOX, a fabrication facility is currently under construction at the Savannah River Site operated by the U.S. Department of Energy in Aiken, South Carolina. Ground was broken in 2007, and the project should be completed and able to start converting plutonium into MOX by 2016. The Tennessee Valley Authority and several other utilities are currently negotiating with the National Nuclear Security Administration to buy the MOX fuel for use in their nuclear power plants.
Unfortunately, some environmental groups, as well as members of Congress, have been voicing objections to the MOX facility. Opponents of nuclear energy claim that MOX is a dangerous fuel, though it’s been used safely around the world for decades. What’s more, MOX is an extremely efficient fuel source for power generation. For example, one MOX fuel assembly can provide enough electricity to power 9,000 homes for one year.
Anti-nuclear organizations are now lobbying Congress to deny further funding for the MOX project, and they have enlisted the support of Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and a perennial anti-nuclear gadfly. Opposition has grown louder since the General Accountability Office estimated that the final cost of building the facility was likely to be $2 billion more than the $5 billion originally budgeted.
Russia is already producing MOX from its plutonium stockpile but is threatening to stop if America doesn’t complete its own fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site. Fortunately, President Barack Obama wants to stay the course. In a recent speech to the National War College, he stated the United States must remain firm on nonproliferation. “We have to sustain the partnerships we have, and that includes Russia. It took decades to build those (nuclear) arsenals and it’s going to take decades—and continued investments—to dismantle them.”
It’s important to keep in mind that the 2000 U.S.-Russia agreement on securing and reducing fissile materials was adopted in response to the threat of nuclear terrorism, and vulnerable stockpiles of plutonium still remain in Russia. By living up to our part of the agreement, and completing the MOX facility at Savannah River, we can reduce the likelihood of fissile material falling into the wrong hands. We’ll also be providing a reliable fuel supply for America’s more than 100 nuclear power plants for decades to come.
Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and a fellow with the George W. Bush Institute.