Twenty years ago, in the Clinton Administration, both of us helped launch a program to build a factory to turn the excess plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons into fuel for nuclear reactors. At that time, the full life-cycle cost estimate to make this plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel was expected to be less than $2 billion dollars. Now, however, with official cost estimates ballooning to over $30 billion, it is clear that the project has become too expensive. It is time to stop throwing good money after bad and pursue cheaper alternatives that will serve our national security better.
The Obama administration has proposed to cancel this boondoggle and pursue a “dilute and dispose” alternative that would simply mix the plutonium with inert materials to make it more difficult to recover and dispose of it as waste. Current estimates suggest this alternative would cost dramatically less, since it is much simpler and would not require building new facilities (though the diluted plutonium would ultimately have to fit in an existing nuclear waste site in New Mexico or wait for the establishment of a new repository). Unfortunately, Congress is debating legislation that would force the administration to keep funding the MOX factory – largely as a pork barrel project for South Carolina.
Canceling the MOX program might undermine a U.S.-Russian agreement to cut 34 tons from each side’s stock of weapons plutonium, using most of it as fuel. The agreement has been modified once before to accommodate a changed Russian approach – but so far, Russia seems reluctant to return the favor, arguing that the disposal approach would not change the mix of isotopes in the plutonium to make it more difficult to reuse in weapons. Hard-headed negotiations might lead Russia to agree, or the weapons plutonium could be mixed with civilian plutonium that has built up in France, Britain, Japan, and Russia itself for much less cost than the MOX program.
With U.S.-Russian relations in a deep freeze and almost all nuclear cooperation cut off – a mistake in itself – the plutonium agreement’s future is in doubt in any case. In particular, despite its enthusiasm for pouring money into the U.S. side of the program, Congress has made clear that it will not provide the $400 million in support for the Russian effort the agreement calls for. So renegotiation will be needed in any case, if the agreement is to move forward.
Implementing the agreement with Russia would be a worthy step in reducing the massive stocks of plutonium built up during the Cold War. But it would only be a small step, as it would leave both countries with enough weapons plutonium to rebuild a Cold War-sized nuclear arsenal. Moreover, going ahead with the agreement would do little to reduce the risk of the material falling into the hands of thieves and terrorists, as the plutonium covered by the deal is some of the most secure material that exists in either country, and there is no cooperation in place to assure that Russia’s plutonium transport and processing under the deal will be effectively secured. Moreover, Russia’s plan is to use the plutonium as fuel in fast-neutron reactors that would ultimately be modified to produce still more plutonium as part of a plutonium economy in Russia, with its attendant proliferation risks.
Meanwhile, as Congress is not likely to drastically increase the Department of Energy’s national security budget, the money for MOX would inevitably come in substantial part from other important nonproliferation, arms control, and nuclear weapons stewardship programs. The annual costs would eat away at a range of efforts that are far more important for U.S. national security. In the net, moving forward with MOX would endanger U.S. security, not strengthen it.
Whatever we do with this plutonium in the long term, we should move to put it under international monitoring, and commit never again to use it in weapons, challenging Russia to do likewise. That would achieve some of the disarmament and nonproliferation benefit of plutonium disposition quickly and cheaply.
It is time to call a halt to the MOX effort. Congress should obey the first law of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.