Former DOE Sec Richardson rips “made to order” studies about SC MOX plant

bill richardsonIn a strongly worded letter (full text) addressed to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson (right) left no room for misinterpretation about his sharp criticism and scorn of two “made to order” studies of estimates of the cost of completing the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel plant in South Carolina.  Richardson, who is also a former governor of New Mexico, said there is no chance that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located in his state, could ever be used for disposition of surplus plutonium.

Pointing out that the nonproliferation agreement with Russia to dispose of 68 tonnes of surplus weapons grade plutonium by blending it into commercially usable MOX fuel was signed during his tenure as DOE Secretary, Richardson said the MOX plant is now two-thirds complete. It is intended to meet U.S. obligations under the agreement with Russia, inked in 2000. The South Carolina plant will blend 34 tonnes of plutonium with uranium to produce the equivalent of 1700 PWR type commercial fuel assemblies. The Russians are building a similar facility and received $400 million from the US to help get the project.

Richardson leveled his sharpest comments at a study prepared for DOE by the Aerospace Corp., which he points out has no experience in the nuclear construction business. He called the extremely high costs cited by the Aerospace Copr. as “whimsical” and labeled as being part of an “aggressive campaign against the MOX plant by using ‘made-to-order’ studies.”

In reference to the second study, the so-called ‘Red Team Report’, chartered by current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and carried out by a high-level group of nuclear energy experts, Richardson points out the group had just six weeks to do their job. The study was led by senior level nuclear energy experts from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and included civilian and former military nuclear energy officials.

It was leaked to the news media by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) which did not have any of its members or staff on the working group. UCS has been at the forefront of a hostile campaign to kill the project not so much for its nonproliferation objectives as for the benefits the high burnup MOX fuel would provide to any US utilities that use it. Worldwide about 30 commercial nuclear reactors use MOX fuel.

Richardson has deep experience in state and federal government, and, in international relations. He called the two reports “reckless from a nonproliferation point of view.” He said any “non-MOX alternative violates the landmark agreement.”

As for using WIPP as an alternative disposition site, Richardson notes that the facility is closed with no date to re-open it following suspension of work there in 2014. A contractor from the Los Alamos National Laboratory disregarded the site’s stringent waste acceptance procedures which resulted in a fire in one of the underground caverns holding radioactive waste. Richardson said that any plan to use WIPP for disposition of plutonium is “a fantasy.”

The use of “dueling studies” has confused lawmakers, Richardson said, and that what DOE must do is get the project completed is to come up with a credible cost and a definite date for which is will begin service.

South Carolina Solons Demand Documents

The entire South Carolina Congressional Delegation has sent a letter to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz demanding “unredacted DOE documents” about the by now much criticized Aerospace Corp. study.

The letter, organized by Rep. Joe Wilson, in who’s district the MOX plant is being built, basically calls the Aerospace Corp. study a hit job though it does not use that specific language.  What it does say is that the Aerospace Corp. study was “not independent,” and was conducted “with considerable influence and direction from DOE.”

The bill to fund the MOX plant is in a conference committee which will reconvene in September. In recent years Congress has not fully funded the project producing delays which have increased the costs for the plant.

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