DOE Red Team Study Frowns on MOX

Washington, D.C., August 23, 2015 — A Department of Energy study, leaked by the Union of Concerned Scientists, finds that it would be far cheaper to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico than to convert it to mixed-oxide reactor fuel at DOE’s Savannah River Site. Savings could amount to $400 million a year.

The Energy Department has been trying to shut down the South Carolina MOX project since the beginning of 2014, but Congress, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), has refused to go along. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in late June commissioned a “Plutonium Disposition Program Red Team.” DOE said in a press release, “Led by Dr. Thom Mason, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, this team will provide an assessment of options to help the U.S. achieve its commitment to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-grade plutonium and provide a recommended path forward.” The team delivered its report to Moniz last week. DOE has not released it, but UCS obtained a copy.

The DOE team visited Savannah River in July. They concluded that the program would have to increase its annual budget from $400 million now to $700-$800 million a year for years into the future. The project is the result of a U.S.-Russia agreement in 2000 in which each country agrees to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. The Red Team said the project has suffered from “difficult, downward-spiraling circumstances,” and that “there are no obvious silver bullets to reduce the [life-cycle] cost of the MOX approach.”

The Red Team study says downblending the plutonium, which has already been done with several tons of plutonium, would cost about $400 million annually over the same timeframe as MOX conversion. Downblending, also known as “dilute and dissolve,” involves diluting the plutonium with inert material and then sending it to the New Mexico site dedicated to disposal of transuranic waste.

But there are problems with downblending, too. At a seminar organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, Miles Pomper of the Monterey Institute of International Studies noted that switching to downblending would require Russian approval. He added that WIPP is currently shut down and when it will reopen for new waste shipments isn’t known. The Red Team said it is confident that WIPP will be operating within five years, which would not delay downblending.

France has traditionally been the leader in MOX technology. But France has had its own difficulties with MOX conversion, noted University of Oxford researcher Peter Wynn Kirby in a New York Times opinion article last week. France, he said, “is expected to phase out its MOx program by 2019.”

As for the U.S. program, Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at UCS and author of a January report on MOX, said, “The time for studies is now over. Congress should stop obstructing the Energy Department from shutting down the MOX program and allow it ramp up the downblending program at the Savannah River Site. Otherwise, the government will continue to waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year.”