The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, as seen in 2007.
By MELANIE KAUFMAN and CAROLINE CHEVAT
Last Thursday, POGO Senior Investigator Peter Stockton spoke on a panel to congressional staff about the Energy Department's (DOE) proposed Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. The cost of construction for the MOX facility has tripled from a fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget estimate of $1.6 billion to its FY 2013 budget estimate of $4.9 billion. According to POGO’s recent report on opportunities for national security savings, halting the construction of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility could save taxpayers about $4.9 billion over the next ten years.
The panel was hosted by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and featured the group’s nonproliferation policy director, Tom Clements, as well as Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The DOE justifies the MOX facility as a way to turn weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel, a fuel used for nuclear power plants. However, the DOE has had a difficult time finding customers for the MOX fuel among nuclear reactor operators, which has gradually made the project more expensive and less justifiable over the past eight years.
As Stockton said to a room of congressional staff, “There are alternatives for getting rid of our excess plutonium without MOX,” and “unlike the MOX program, nonproliferation programs like converting highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium will reduce security risks, cut government spending, create jobs, and can raise $23 billion in revenue for the Treasury.” Low-enriched uranium can be used for light water reactors, which are a type of thermal reactor.
Tom Clements detailed transparency issues with the MOX project. Clements lobbied for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of both the MOX program and plutonium disposal alternatives. Aspects that need to be evaluated include costs surrounding potential fuel assembly testing as well as total program estimates.
The House Appropriations Committee wrote in 2011 that the safety of MOX fuel in certain reactor designs was even more questionable since the nuclear disaster at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The uncertain utility and safety of MOX fuel has made potential buyers concerned.
As Stockton stated on Thursday, POGO sees the MOX project as “a prime example of Department of Energy mismanagement,” and recommends that Congress re-evaluate the facility’s out-of-control, rising costs.
In early February, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act (H.R. 3947) which would end or reduce spending in over a dozen nuclear projects, including the MOX program. POGO supports this bill.
Melanie Kaufman and Caroline Chevat are POGO interns.
Image via NNSANews.