MOX 101: The history behind MOX

  • Tuesday, March 18, 2014

There’s been a lot of back and forth between advocates and naysayers of the MOX facility under construction at the Savannah River Site, and both sides looking at the past and current facts of the facility to make their cases.

The most recent controversy sparks from President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal that suggests a “cold stand-by,” which would freeze the funding for the project.

With new developments expected soon, the Aiken Standard looks at the past, present and possible future of the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, also known as MOX, project.

History of MOX/plutonium

MOX is an acronym that stands for “mixed oxide” fuel. It is a nuclear fuel that usually consists of plutonium blended with a type of uranium.

The plutonium in MOX fuel is known as weapons-grade plutonium, and is defined as a substance pure enough to be used to make weapons.

According to a 2013 article from the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the United States’ history with weapons-grade plutonium dates back to July 16, 1945 when it was used in a nuclear explosive that was tested in New Mexico. Less than a month later, an explosive, based on that design, was used in World War II when bombers dropped the explosive over Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 9, 1945.

The article added that an abundance of plutonium-fueled reactors were constructed at various Department of Energy sites after the success of the explosive. Among those was the Savannah River Site.

“The primary mission of the Savannah River reactors was to produce tritium for U.S. nuclear weapons, but they produced a great deal of weapon-grade plutonium as well,” the article stated.

Many weapons-grade plutonium reactors were built during the 1950s and 1960s, but the need for them diminished and by 1987, all of the country’s production reactors were shut down.

U.S.-Russia agreement and construction

With the U.S. and Russia still holding weapons-grade plutonium from the Cold War era, plans eventually surfaced to dispose of it to eliminate the threat of future weapons production.

The two countries reached a MOX agreement in September 2000 under President George W. Bush’s administration. Known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the document was signed by Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

The two countries agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium apiece, and SRS was chosen as the site for the MOX facility construction by the energy department.

“The Savannah River Site was selected by the Department of Energy. As part of the selection process, the DOE prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) and solicited public input through meetings and comments on the EIS,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated on a MOX question/answer page on its website.

While the agreement was inked in 2000, the contract to design, build and operate the MOX Facility at the SRS was already awarded to Shaw AREVA MOX Services in 1999.

MOX Services began constructing the MOX facility in August 2007. To date, the project is about 60 percent complete and employs about 1,800 workers.

MOX controversies

While intentions of the MOX facility appear to be good, the project has generated a huge amount of controversy.

Financially, the cost of the project continues to increase based on studies. Originally, the Government Accountability Office reported in June that the project is $3 billion over its original estimate, costing an estimated $7.7 billion. Last month, DOE revealed the results of its own study, claiming that the life-cycle cost of the entire program could cost $30 billion.

Contractually, the project has also undergone changes. Once again, the project is meant to turn plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.

The only end user for the project, Duke Energy, was set to receive the nuclear fuel after completion. However, Duke pulled out of the agreement in 2009. Since then, MOX still has not secured an end user for the fuel, meaning SRS would potentially be stuck with more unwanted nuclear material at the end of the project.

Among advocates for closing the facility is Friend’s of the Earth spokeswoman Katherine Fuchs.

“Congress should follow the president’s lead in redirecting funding to the search for faster, less expensive technologies to dispose of plutonium,” Fuchs said.

One point that is overlooked is that the MOX facility is only one part of the entire plutonium disposition program. Another major part is the construction of the Waste Solidification Building.

The waste building is designed to process materials generated from the MOX facility. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions has been in charge of constructing the building since 2009 and started with a $345 million budget. The estimated completion date was scheduled for 2013. At this time, building construction is 95 percent complete, with no new completion date set.

Local impact

Advocates of the facility have addressed the cost concerns and have agreed that taxpayers should not have to pay so much. However, many of them have also had to shoulder that long-term effect and the immediate impact of the facility – jobs.

The well-known statistic among economy watchers is that one job at SRS represents 2.5 jobs in Aiken County. So with about 1,800 workers employed by the facility, the workforce represents about 4,500 additional jobs in Aiken County.

Community leaders such as Economic Development Partnership director Will Williams, and Aiken Chamber President and CEO David Jameson have internalized that number and have been focused on strategies to preserve the SRS workforce to keep stability in the local economy.

Since the news of the potential cold stand-by, the two have been briefed on issues concerning the project.

“What is very clear is that anything less than completing construction and then operating the MOX facility will impact current and future employment significantly in a negative way for our community,” Williams said after the briefings.

What’s next?

Since the budget proposal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., have all signed a letter to DOE claiming that recent funds for the project are designated for construction, rather than a cold stand-by.

“Under the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act and the FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, funding is provided for construction activities at the MOX facility. No funds are provided to put the program in cold stand-by,” the three South Carolina congressmen, and four additional congressmen, wrote in the letter.

In addition, the three South Carolina delegates have also advised Gov. Nikki Haley to take any possible legal actions to save the project. Since that time, Haley, and her staffers have agreed to explore possible legal options.

At this point, MOX’s future still hangs in the balance with many believing layoffs are on the horizon.

Immediately following news of the budget proposal, Williams posted the following on the Economic Development Partnership’s Facebook page: “News out of Washington, D.C., is not encouraging today. The MOX project will begin going into cold standby very soon. Expect significant layoffs. Stay tuned.”

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard.

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