The actual funding decision will be made by Congress
The annual rite of killing tens of thousands of trees to print millions of pages of budget proposals is taking place in Washington, DC, this month. Even in this digital age, the U.S. Government Printing Office still churns out truckloads of the documents which become instant doorstops except for the people who will win or lose if the prognostications within them become congressional appropriations which means – real money.
It is this environment into which is tossed the possible fate of the Department of Energy’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility now under construction at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. The target this year of a series of dueling cost estimates, and the ire of the Union of Concerned Scientists, it appears to have fallen into a bottomless pit of disfavor at the White House.
President Obama’s FY2017 budget calls for an end to continued construction of the MOX plant and a new course of action to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium. The plan is to bury it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico after “blending” it with other materials. This process would have to take place at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The plans is delusional for several reasons. First, the WIPP site was never designed to handle this waste form. Further, the Los Alamos facility, which would be expected to do the work, would require expensive upgrades, and even then might not be up to the job. DOE officials have said as much. Worse, the ability of Los Alamos to handle the down blending is questionable given that the February 2015 explosion inside WIPP was caused by both management and technical failures at Los Alamos.
In short the budget proposal to kill the MOX plant is just another example of inside the beltway arrogance which says that if political winds are blowing in a certain direction the technical details don’t matter. For people who understand that making the MOX fuel ends the potential use of the plutonium for weapons once and for all, it makes a mockery of the biblical spirit of the phase “turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”
Inside the Beltway
How the funding decision works is important. The President doesn’t have the final word. Appropriations committees in the House and Senate will hold hearings on the budget. Eventually, both chambers will produce funding legislation and the differences will be worked out in a conference committee.
An item as large as the MOX plant will get a lot of scrutiny. Worse for the project, in both the House and Senate there will be horse trading for other large projects, some of which, like the infamous Alaska bridge to nowhere, are just pork, and don’t support international agreements. It is a messy, frustrating process which has no predictable outcome at the start.
The details of the Obama administration position are uncertain because DOE officials admit that they don’t know if all 34 tonnes of surplus plutonium can be stored at the WIPP site. Agency officials cite several disputed cost studies that show it is cheaper to go that route than to complete the MOX plant. Proponents of the plant say it is 70% complete and requires another $3 billion to finish.
Below the Beltway
The cost studies and the technical details may turn out to be irrelevant in the congressional funding debate. South Carolina’s congressional delegation has geared up for a political fight. US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called the Obama budget decision “reckless,” and said it would violate the agreement with Russia which has also pledged to turn 34 tonnes of its surplus plutonium into MOX fuel.
Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) released a fact sheet showing that the WIPP option would take far longer than expected leaving his state in the de facto role of being a “dumping ground” for the stuff.
Wilson has a huge political hurdle to overcome with the White House. He’s infamous for having shouted “you lie” at one of President Obama’s State of the Union speeches. It’s also likely no one among those still in the president’s inner circle have ever forgotten the insult.
It’s an object lesson for politicians of all persuasions that biting the hand that feeds you by sounding off for dramatic effect when you have a multi-billion dollar federally funded project in your district is never a good idea. Just ask the people of Texas who lost the Super Collider when they elected a republican senator to Congress during the Clinton administration.
The Russians are Coming
While the US has been engaged in the usual rounds of anti-nuclear politics, the Russians have been producing MOX fuel for a line of fast reactors.
In statements released to World Nuclear News on 2/10/16 Sergei Kirienko noted the Russian MOX plant is operational and was built for pennies on the dollar compared to the US costs.
The MOX fuel fabrication facility at Krasnoyarsk produced about two dozen fuel assemblies last year. By 2017 it will increase production to 400 fuel assemblies. The MOX fuel will be used to power the BN-800 fast neutron reactor at Sverdlovsk.
The reactor has been running at 50% power and is connected to the grid. It is the successor to the BN-600 which is a similar design.
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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio promised (in Aiken, South Carolina) to fully fund and operate the MOX facility.