Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 23, 2017

Public Interest Groups Challenge Savannah River Site’s Troubled Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Program

By Thomas Clements | Oct 11, 2012
Photo by: Carolina Peace Resourec Center At a meeting at the University of South Carolina on October 10, attendees heard from Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) about mounting cost and technical problems with the plutonium fuel (MOX) program being carried out at the Savannah River Site.  Meeting participants learned that MOX program is amongst the most poorly managed and costly DOE programs which the Government Accountability Office has warned about.  Participants also learned about preliminary and secretive efforts by special interests to bring the nation's highly radioactive spent fuel to South Carolina for  "extended" storage and possible reprocessing.  The crowd uniformly agreed that spent fuel dumping on the state would be soundly opposed by South Carolinians, who will fight like Gamecocks against the scheme.

Columbia, SC -- The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA), in conjunction with over 40 other public interest organizations, has submitted comments to the Department of Energy (DOE) in opposition to the MOX plutonium fuel program. The Mixed Oxide Plutonium fuel, or MOX, program would dispose of surplus weapons plutonium by turning it into experimental plutonium fuel (MOX) at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.

The groups oppose MOX for both fiscal and technical reasons and instead endorse preparation of a new analysis to review cheaper and safer options to manage weapons-grade plutonium as nuclear waste.

The groups’ comments of October 10 were submitted as part of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) on plutonium disposition. The Draft SEIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act before the MOX program can move ahead. The comments focus on DOE’s poorly formulated plan for testing experimental weapons-grade MOX fuel and for its use in commercial nuclear power reactors.

The cost of DOE’s plutonium fuel program, which has been poorly received by utilities, has soared, with about $17.5 billion yet to be spent, based on an analysis by ANA. This figure is more than three times the cost of disposing of plutonium as nuclear waste and should come as a shock to fiscal conservatives, according to ANA.

Shaw AREVA MOX Services is constructing the $7-billion MOX plant at the Savannah River Site.  DOE has staunchly refused to inform the taxpayer about the cost of both the MOX plant and the overall plutonium disposition program.

"DOE and AREVA expect the tax payer to continue signing blank checks for the misguided MOX program but patience is wearing thin as good money is being thrown after bad," according to Tom Clements of ANA.  "Why should the French plutonium company AREVA be profiting off the U.S. tax payer for a dead-end program that lacks a path forward?"

The comments note that currently “DOE has no “Plan B” to pursue plutonium management when the MOX program fails due to cost, technical and scheduling challenges.” DOE has already demonstrated how its failure to think about “Plan B” on other projects has resulted in billions of wasted taxpayer dollars, according to ANA. This includes millions of dollars wasted designing a plutonium processing facility in New Mexico that, in the face of cost and schedule problems, DOE now says it doesn’t need. ANA and its public interest allies believe that taking time to plan for safer, less expensive alternatives to MOX could save tax payers billions.

Technical and scheduling problems with DOE’s plan to make MOX fuel are highlighted in the public interest group comments. Groups signing on to the comments point out that the DOE’s “pro-MOX” “preferred alternative” which was presented in the Draft SEIS is inconsistent with the “no-MOX” alternative presented by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). DOE is considering MOX use in five of TVA's aging reactors, including three reactors Browns Ferry which are of the faulty Fukushima design.

In the Draft SEIS, TVA is simply listed as a “cooperating agency,” but, in fact, TVA’s role as the only utility selected to accept plutonium fuel is central to the MOX program. At this point TVA has not expressed interest in MOX testing or use. This inconsistency poses serious legal problems for DOE under the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to ANA and allied groups, DOE has a legal responsibility to prepare a new Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), due to the significant changes between previous Environmental Impact Statements and the Draft SEIS. Some of these dramatic changes include using Los Alamos National Lab, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), or other facilities for plutonium disposition had not been considered by DOE in earlier versions of the MOX Environmental Impact Statement. The comments state that “DOE/NNSA must issue for public comment a new Storage and Disposition PEIS or a Supplemental PEIS describing the overall surplus plutonium disposition program and its alternatives before it can proceed with a Final Supplemental EIS.”

Groups signed onto the comments noted that MOX made from weapons-grade plutonium has never been used on a commercial scale anywhere in the world and such experimental fuel has never even been tested in a boiling water reactor. The Draft SEIS DOE proposes using MOX in TVA’s Sequoyah pressurized water reactors and the problem-plagued Browns Ferry boiling water reactors. However, TVA has not agreed to accept MOX and has not even conducted any public analysis of the testing and use of experimental weapons-grade MOX fuel.

At a recent environmental hearing near Browns Ferry, not a single person spoke in favor of MOX use in the reactors, indicating that TVA will have a public relations nightmare on its hands if it were to consider MOX testing and use in the reactors now at the top of the NRC's list of problematic reactors.

TVA’s chief nuclear officer, Preston Swofford, was recently quoted by the Decatur (Alabama) Daily throwing cold water on the idea of TVA using MOX: "It's just so low on my radar screen that I refuse to jump in the fray. I don't think I do service to the ratepayers of the Valley bringing on one more issue. Now three or four years from now, when the fleet's back to steady, we'll take a look at the product."

“It is stunning that DOE is proceeding with construction of a $7-billion MOX plant at the Savannah River Site without any customers to use plutonium fuel and no operational schedule for the plant,” said Tom Clements, ANA's Nonproliferation Policy Director. “The time to terminate the MOX program and explore safer, less costly options to dispose of plutonium as nuclear waste has arrived. Due to technical and legal issues, it is clear that DOE will not be able to issue a Final Environmental Impact Statement endorsing MOX, which will be a strong indication that the MOX program is stumbling and that new non-MOX approaches are needed.”

Click here to view the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability's comments on the Plutonium Disposition Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.


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