Column: Telling some good news about the MOX facility

  • Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 1:28 a.m.

The media recently presented news articles and opinion letters commenting on Mixed Oxide Fuel Facility project cost overruns that were identified earlier this year. The MOX project is a key part of the United States’ program to permanently prevent plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons (so-called weapons-grade plutonium) from ever again being used in a nuclear weapon.

The MOX facility turns swords into plowshares by making fuel elements for commercial nuclear power reactors from a mixture of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium (MOX fuel), and by using the MOX fuel elements in a commercial nuclear power reactor. By using the MOX fuel elements in a nuclear reactor, the weapons-grade plutonium is permanently changed and rendered unusable for future use in a nuclear weapon.

Some of the items reported in the media are factual; other items are platforms to espouse long-standing anti-MOX and anti-nuclear positions. I know of no one who enjoys cost overruns, especially an overrun that is borne by the taxpayer. However, there is a very positive “good news” side to the MOX story that has not been reported and which needs to be told.

• Good news No. 1: MOX is three years away from completion of construction and five years away from producing its first fuel element – and every day thereafter, the MOX plant will produce enough fuel elements to permanently destroy the amount of weapons-grade plutonium contained in one nuclear warhead or bomb. One day equals one less bomb.

• Good news No. 2: The Russian Federation has agreed to destroy an amount of weapons-grade plutonium equal to that destroyed by the United States; and the Russian facilities are now also under construction. If the United States does not destroy its weapons plutonium, neither will the Russians; but fortunately that is not the case. This means one day will equal two less bombs.

• Good news No. 3: A portion of the recent overrun resulted from an increase in the MOX facility’s capability that reduced costs elsewhere. By increasing the MOX facility’s capability and by modifying and making use of other existing DOE facilities (including the Savannah River Site’s H Canyon), the planned need for a separate $4 billion Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility has been eliminated. The total cost to the taxpayer for destroying more than 8,000 bombs worth of weapons-grade plutonium has gone down. Kudos to the Department of Energy, Shaw/AREVA MOX, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions and the Los Alamos National Laboratory for this innovative and cost-saving change.

• Good news No. 4: The oft-forgot positive track record of perseverance and performance since the Surplus Plutonium Disposition program was first approved in 2000. This program consisted of three major facilities, expected to cost several billion dollars each. Today, after 13 years, the same program objectives will be delivered by one highly capable major facility for $7 billion, an amount approximately equal to the estimates made 13 years and innumerable external delays ago.

So, instead of throwing rocks because of the recent cost overrun, we should be sending the Department of Energy and MOX bouquets for performing an important, difficult and controversial job in a very safe manner, with high quality and within a cost estimate established more than 10 years ago. The nation needs more projects managed as well as MOX.

I congratulate the DOE and the MOX team.

Ernie Chaput had a 35-year career with the Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies, with positions throughout the United States; spending the past 18 years at the Savannah River Site. He served as deputy manager for the Department of Energy at SRS when he retired in 1996.

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