Held up by MOX(y)
Sometimes, even in Congress, one can overplay one’s hand protecting turf. Consider the South Carolina delegation’s sharp objection to President Obama’s cut to a nuclear project sited at Savannah River designed to convert 34 tons of nuclear weapon-grade plutonium into civilian reactor fuel. President Obama, who has a reputation for spending too much on energy projects, wants to cut this one by $167 million and find a more cost effective way to dispose of the plutonium. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has decided to play hardball by placing a hold on the Energy Secretary nominee, Ernest Moniz, whose appointment just received near unanimous approval of the Senate Energy Committee.
To be sure, the president’s proposed cut hardly augurs well for the Mixed Oxide Fuels (MOX) program.
Due to mismanagement, the project is now more than a decade behind schedule and is projected to cost nearly four times its original $2 billion construction estimate. Worse, it has little hope of ever achieving its intended objective, which was to make fuel that U.S. nuclear utilities would burn. Even after extensive marketing, nobody, not even federally supported Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), is interested in buying this fuel, perhaps because it is riskier to use than conventional uranium fuel. Yet, without customers, there is no way this project can end, except in costly failure.
Making subsidized, uneconomical nuclear fuels from weapons explosive plutonium may have been palatable 20 years ago when the project was first hatched. Today, however, it is directly at odds with our government’s sensible efforts to persuade others to forgo making similar fuels.
Just this week, our diplomats shelved a request from South Korea to make plutonium-based fuels from spent U.S.-origin nuclear fuel. They did this to avoid setting any precedent that might give North Korean, Iranian, or other would-be bomb makers a “peaceful” civilian pretext to make nuclear explosive materials themselves.
There also is a worry that Japan may soon dramatically expand its plutonium recycling efforts (to extract each year 1,000 to 2,000 bombs worth of nuclear explosive plutonium – enough to make enough nuclear weapons to quantitatively replicate the entire deployed, US nuclear force). This is a step that might well prompt an unwanted military response from China.
Of course, if the president was going to kill the project outright and had no intention of starting up an alternative program, the South Carolina delegation’s objections might be defensible. In fact, the president is doing neither. In the longer term, the president says he wants to consider alternative ways to dispose of the 34 tons of plutonium. This could include vitrifying the plutonium with existing nuclear waste. This would cost at least $2 billion and take several years to accomplish. It could be done at Savannah River. Short-term storage of the plutonium is also a possible option.
In either case, the delegation from South Carolina would surely have a say over what alternative would make the most sense. Certainly, engaging in that battle, rather the reactionary, rearguard action it is now threatening to wage, would serve everyone’s long-term interest, including that of South Carolina.
Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and Autumn Hanna is senior program director at Taxpayers for Common Sense.