In the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday and the Senate today, Congress is taking an encouraging step toward terminating the wasteful and dangerous Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant, under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX plant, if completed, would be used to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the project is decades behind schedule and is now expected to cost upwards of $50 billion—ten times the original estimate.
The MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant in January 2018. Photo Courtesy of High Flyer © 2018
The provision in the bill represents a significant political shift, although reports that MOX is dead are somewhat premature. Assuming the bill becomes law, the next—and hopefully final—step is when the Department of Energy (DOE) submits to Congress a life-cycle cost estimate demonstrating that an alternative approach for disposing of the excess plutonium could be accomplished for less than half of the remaining MOX project cost. The DOE’s alternative approach, “dilute and dispose,” a straightforward and well-established process, should be able to satisfy this criterion. The end of MOX is in sight.
The program that wouldn’t die
Since 2014, the DOE has been trying to end the MOX program. However, the project, which has provided a steady stream of federal funds to South Carolina for over a decade, is steadfastly protected by certain members of Congress, including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and like-minded colleagues.
For several years, a stalemate ensued, with Congress compelling the DOE to continue building a facility it no longer wanted, but without providing enough funding to effectively advance the project. Meanwhile, problems at the MOX plant, including faulty construction that requires costly and time-consuming “rework” to fix, keep piling up. Things have gotten so slow at the site that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently revealed that it was no longer stationing a full-time inspector at the MOX plant because there wasn’t enough work to justify it.