Tuesday, February 19, 2013

MOX Fuel, Plutonium Proliferation and the Russians

As automatic sequestration budget cuts loom, the Department of Energy has managed to keep a $5 billion plutonium plant alive - just barely. According to an Office of Budget and Management proposed budget, funding for the controversial Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program would be cut 75% with no justification for not pursuing an outright cancellation.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War in 1990, the United States was faced with the dilemma of discarding a stockpile of dismantled nuclear warheads containing tons of lethal plutonium, leftovers from a frenzied arms-race with Russia that fabricated thousands of unnecessary budget-busting nuclear weapons, warheads and bombs since the end of WW II.

Amidst Administration concerns about nuclear proliferation with Iran’s potential entry into the world of nuclear weapons and as the North Koreans conduct a ‘miniaturized’ nuclear device, the MOX fuel plant under construction since 2007 at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina sounds, on the surface, like a conscientious effort to limit the spread of weapons-grade plutonium.

The beleaguered MOX plant, designed to convert plutonium from obsolete nuclear warheads to ultimately fuel commercial nuclear reactors has been plagued by out-of-control cost overruns and is significantly behind its 2007 startup date, has been targeted for total elimination by environmentalists, safe energy, peace and taxpayer groups.

Keeping the project on the books with a $2 billion life-line is of dubious legislative wisdom since the MOX facility may never function as originally designed or be reconfigured for any other purpose.  Even as the DOE has failed to find one commercial utility willing to utilize MOX, it is unclear what would be accomplished by maintaining an empty building with no purpose. In the marbled halls of Congress, it is frequently a clever ploy to ‘deep six’ a controversial, indefensible project and then quietly slip it back in when the opponents are engaged elsewhere – but the reality is that the 75% cut should not be considered a ‘done deal.’ Committed Congressional friends of the project can be expected to find a way, during all the hustle-bustle of the sequestration debate, to restore full MOX funding.

In recognition of the proliferation risks from surplus irradiated plutonium, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) signed a contract in 1999 with a consortium of corporate partners including Duke Energy to design and operate a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility. By 2000, the US and Russia, which had also accumulated tons of excess plutonium, entered into a Management and Disposition of Plutonium Agreement PMDA. with each country accepting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring and committing to convert no less than 34 metric tons of plutonium, also known as nuclear fodder for terrorists. The US had estimated 50 tons of surplus plutonium in its possession with 38 tons considered ‘weapons grade’

According to the 2000 Agreement, two options were identified for preventing plutonium from any future use: one option called for immobilization of plutonium in a ‘glass or ceramic matrix using a can-in-canister system of chemically stable ceramic discs suitable for geologic disposal.’ In 2001, President Bush cut project funds as he halted construction of an immobilization plant considered by Ed Lyman, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, to be worth exploring as an alternative. Instead Bush gave the green light for development of a full-scale MOX program.

Upon scrutiny, the MOX fuel option is an untested nuclear boondoggle with the potential for accomplishing the opposite of the Agreement’s stated goal: prohibiting the proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium. The more experimental MOX process is considerably more hazardous and complicated with numerous opportunities for plutonium diversion - beginning with the removal of a plutonium “pit” (about the size of a grapefruit) from a defunct nuclear warhead. The ‘pit’ is to be converted into an oxide powder mixed with depleted uranium to form the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. Of special concern to Lyman is the increased handling by personnel and multiple transportation risks of one of the “world’s most dangerous substance and a usable nuclear weapon material traveling in unmarked trucks with weaken security safeguards than would otherwise be required for comparable toxic material.”

Of no less importance is the status of the bilateral Agreement (amended in 2011) with its Russian partner. Lyman and Tom Clements, nuclear weapons expert with Friends of the Earth, share the concern of the U .S. sanctioning Russia’s use of a fast neutron reactor and the reprocessing of some of its spent fuel to produce additional plutonium, thereby undermining the original intent of the Agreement to decrease plutonium stockpiles.

Clements added that the promise of the Agreement is no longer being pursued as Russia has abandoned the use of MOX in light-water reactors and has instead been building a new plutonium BN800 "breeder" reactor which poses significant nuclear proliferation risks as the reactor using MOX fuel can produce weapons-grade plutonium. "It is a blow to international nuclear non-proliferation policies that the US has helped enable Russia to build the BN800 breeder reactor," said Clements.