USA scraps completion of mox facility

22 May 2018

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry has informed Congress that he has effectively ended the project to construct a mixed-oxide (mox) fuel fabrication facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The facility is about 70% complete. In a letter to Senate and House of Representative committee leaders, Perry said he was executing a waiver included in the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2018 to end construction of the MFFF. The mox plant was being built as part of a 2000 agreement with Russia under which each country agreed to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium by turning it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. Russia had agreed to use the material in fast reactors but suspended the agreement in October 2016 after Washington had frozen the project.

Perry said the Department of Energy (DOE) was committed to removing the plutonium from South Carolina which was intended for disposal using the MFFF. "We are currently processing plutonium in South Carolina for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and intend to continue to do so," he noted. DOE will now pursue the "dilute and dispose of" option for disposing of the 34 tonnes of plutonium whereby the SRS facility would be used to dilute plutonium and dispose of it at WIPP in New Mexico.  "I certify that the remaining lifecycle cost of the dilute and dispose approach will be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost of the mox fuel programme," Perry said.

DOE’s cost estimate concluded that the remaining dilute and dispose of lifecycle would cost $19.9bn, while the remaining lifecycle cost of the mox fuel programme to be $49.4bn. DOE will work with authorities in New Mexico "to address the capacity issues related to the receipt of the full 34 tonnes at WIPP", he noted. DOE is also "exploring whether any of the plutonium currently in South Carolina can be moved elsewhere for programmatic uses".

A joint statement issued the same day by Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defence for acquisition and sustainment, and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, DOE Under Secretary and National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) administrator, said: "An evolving and uncertain geopolitical landscape calls for the United States to recapitalise its defence plutonium capabilities." They propose that  MFFF be used for the production of plutonium pits, the core of nuclear weapons. Currently, the USA has very little pit production underway. To upgrade US “defence plutonium capabilities,” the Department of Defence has set a target of producing at least 80 pits a year by 2030. The NNSA is recommending the mox project be repurposed to produce 50 pits a year, with the other 30 pits produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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