The writing is on the wall: The new cost estimates for the mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel program doom this ill-fated program. Congress should act now to end the program before any more money is wasted.
Designed to convert excess plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into commercial nuclear fuel, the MOX program has failed to achieve any of the goals that launched it. It is a boondoggle that survives only because the politicians who benefit from it are more motivated than the majority who oppose it but cannot be bothered to kill it.
A new report by the Aerospace Corporation released to Congress last week, however, shows that expected costs have escalated so much that the program cannot reasonably be sustained. According to this one-page summary, the report estimates the life-cycle cost of the MOX program in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars at a minimum of $47.5 billion.
Note that this is the cost “to-go,” i.e., the remaining costs to complete the plant construction, down-blend the plutonium, burn it in reactors and dispose of the radioactive waste. It excludes the approximately $4 billion that has already been spent on the program. It also does not include decommissioning, demolition and return-to-greenfield costs. With that in mind, it should be compared to DOE’s 2014 to-go estimate of $25.1 billion. In other words, the report estimates a price tag for the cost of completing the program that is nearly 90 percent more.
Worse yet, this estimate only applies if annual program expenditures increase significantly to $500 million per year–about $150 million more than Congress has been willing to provide. At roughly the current funding levels, the report estimates that the MOX plant would not start operating until fiscal year 2100 and the to-go life-cycle cost would amount to an incredible $110.4 billion.
Now is the time for Congress to stop this nonsense. In its FY2016 budget request, the administration requested $345 million for the MOX program. The House is about to consider the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill, the current draft of which fully funds that request. members should amend the bill to cut that funding dramatically, providing only enough money to shut down the program responsibly. Any additional funds spent to continue building a plant that in all likelihood will never be operated are funds that could instead be used to support better approaches.
There are viable alternatives to MOX that would cost far less. In particular, the new Aerospace report finds that down-blending and disposal of the excess plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) could be achieved for approximately $17.2 billion. This would entail diluting the plutonium with an inert material and disposing of the mixture in deep salt caverns in New Mexico where DOE already disposes of plutonium-contaminated waste. A recent report on MOX alternatives by UCS senior scientist Edwin Lyman found that this approach could be used to dispose of the plutonium without amending the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act, which many observers had thought would be a difficult challenge. However, for this option to be viable, DOE will have to regain New Mexico’s confidence in light of the plutonium contamination accident that occurred at WIPP in February 2014.
Finally, Congressional supporters of efforts to stop the spread of nuclear materials on both sides of the aisle need to stop thinking of MOX as a nonproliferation program. While disposing of Russian and American excess plutonium was the intent of the 2000 agreement that started the U.S. MOX program, Moscow’s current disposal approach could readily be reversed to increase its stockpile of weapon-usable plutonium. Meanwhile, in order to cut corners and try to attract the commercial reactors that are required under the U.S. approach, security requirements for the plutonium have been so weakened that the risks of theft or diversion would be far higher than if the material was simply left where it is now: in secure storage.
As a result, cutting the MOX budget sharply—and reducing the overall nonproliferation budget that funding resides in—would assist efforts to stop the spread of nuclear material and reduce the nuclear threat.
Young is senior analyst for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.