The MOX project has been left reeling as President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2014 not only cut its funding by $115 million, but also is looking into “alternative plutonium disposition strategies.”
“This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, though, due to cost growth and fiscal pressure,” the Department of Energy budget states. “While the Administration will assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies, resulting in a slowdown of MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility construction in 2014, it is nonetheless committed to the overarching goals of the plutonium disposition program.”
The budget request sent to Congress is seeking $503 million for fissile materials disposition with the majority of the money going to the MOX project. That’s $182 million less than the fiscal year 2012 budget and significantly less than funding provided in last year’s Continuing Resolution.
“The president’s request in FY14 is $503 million for the entire fissile materials disposition program, under that $320 million is allocated for support of continued construction on the MOX facility, at a reduced pace, while we conduct an assessment of alternative disposition options,” said Andrew Bieniawski, an official for National Nuclear Security Administration’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program.
In fiscal year 2012, MOX was allocated $435 million, so the fiscal year 2014 reduces that by $115 million.
The proposed budget’s impact on the 2,400 MOX workforce is unknown.
“I do accept that there will be workforce impact because people have to make plans determining what they expect the work is going to be. Remember, this is a Fiscal 14 proposal, and we are in Fiscal 13 right now. But because people have to make plans, I do expect it will have an impact on the workforce,” said Neile Miller, NNSA acting administrator. “And, of course, we have to see in the next few weeks what that is going to look like.”
Speaking recently, Shaw AREVA MOX Services President and COO Kelly Trice said that he had already started to lose staff, but that the project was funded for fiscal year 2013.
The MOX project was one of two options proposed for the disposition of the plutonium pits – the core of the nuclear weapons to be disposed of. The other project was to vitrify the waste, turning it into glass, then storing it in canisters to be placed in a geological repository. A process similar to that is currently used to handle high-level legacy liquid waste at the Savannah River Site.
The mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility was designed and proposed to turn 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium and into reactor fuel to be burned in commercial reactors. This was part of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, in which both sides would alter the bomb-ready plutonium isotopically so it could not be used in bombs.
“It’s clear that the mismanaged MOX program has run head-on into fiscal realities and may be set for a phase out,” said Tom Clements, of Friends of the Earth and a longtime opponent of the plan. “The termination handwriting has been on the wall due to project mismanagement by NNSA and MOX Services, leading to extreme cost overruns and large schedule delays. DOE must immediately begin a renewed effort to prepare for disposition of plutonium as waste, including via vitrification in high-level waste now being processed at SRS.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson commented on the language of the budget Wednesday afternoon.
“I am extremely disappointed in the president’s decision to reduce funding for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site,” Wilson said. “Not only is the facility over 60 percent completed, it also allows the United States to honor its commitment to Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. Halting the construction of this vital national asset is not in the best interest of our national security and will also severely hinder SRS’s ability to complete its environmental cleanup mission.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed similar sentiments.
“I have deep concerns with the president’s budget proposal for the MOX program,” he said. “The MOX program has been studied, evaluated and restudied. The MOX plant has always been and will remain the best plan to dispose of weapons grade plutonium.”
The budget documents did repeatedly state that honoring the agreement with the Russian Federation was of paramount importance.
“The Administration recognizes the importance of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, whereby each side committed to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium” the budget reads.