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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

Vol. 20 No. 5 • Feb 5, 2016

White House Said to Propose Deep Cuts for MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility

Dan Leone
NS&D Monitor

As part of a policy blitz aimed at paving the way to send some 40 tons of diluted plutonium to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the White House’s fiscal 2017 budget request will slash funding for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in Aiken, S.C., according to an informed source.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) is a massive reactor at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site being built to turn 34 metric tons of weapon-usable plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel suitable for commercial nuclear power generators. Congress approved $340 million for the project in fiscal 2016, with instructions that the money be used only for construction.

Also around the time the budget proposal appears, the source said, DOE will unveil a record of decision it has been sitting on since late January formalizing the agency’s preference to dilute some 6 metric tons of weapon-ready plutonium currently stored at the Savannah River Site and ship it to WIPP.

That plutonium is not part of the 34-metric-ton tranche that, at least officially, is still slated to be turned into MOX fuel under a 2000 arms-reduction pact the Obama administration finalized with Russia in 2010. However, DOE’s disposal plan for those 6 metric tons of plutonium is similar to the process that could be used to get rid of the 34 metric tons of surplus material if work on the MFFF is halted and DOE instead chooses the alternative “dilute and dispose” option endorsed in a report last year by the Plutonium Disposition Red Team. That team was chaired by Thom Mason, director of DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Red Team said dilution and disposal at WIPP is the only means of fulfilling the arms-reduction deal, given current DOE budgets. Completing the MFFF, that team said, is prohibitively expensive at expected funding levels.

MFFF is being built by CB&I AREVA MOX Services, a partnership of The Netherlands-based CB&I and AREVA North America, the U.S. arm of French nuclear power company AREVA. Estimates of the facility’s life-cycle cost vary drastically. In 2015, a congressionally chartered report from the Pentagon-funded Aerospace Corp., of El Segundo, Calif., pegged the cost at $51 billion. CB&I shot back with its own report, by consulting firm High Bridge Associates, of Greensboro, Ga., which said the MFFF life-cycle cost was $17 billion.

A White House request to even partially defund MFFF would face large, if not insurmountable, technical and political hurdles. The facility has many allies in Congress, where lawmakers on the appropriations committees that draft budget bills could simply ignore the White House’s request.

The drum beat for full funding had already started in a Feb. 3 hearing of the House Budget Committee, during which Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), whose second congressional district includes the entire Savannah River Site, said it was “critical” to continue construction on MFFF.

“This facility is our only viable method at this time of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium and our country’s only means to honor the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement we have with the Russian Federation,” Wilson said.

If Congress did agree to shut down MFFF, it would take about three years and cost $550 million to $700 million, according to DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. That finding was part of a report titled “Study on the Disposition of Weapons Usable Plutonium,” which lawmakers ordered DOE to prepare as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

Even according to the most conservative appraisal published so far, MFFF construction is about 50 percent complete.

Meanwhile, the DOE-chartered Red Team acknowledged there is not enough space in WIPP to store all 34 metric tons of the plutonium of which the White House pledged to dispose.

WIPP, slated to reopen in December after a nearly three-year moratorium on waste shipments prompted by a fire and subsequent radiation leak in 2014, is already the country’s only disposal facility for transuranic waste— equipment and material contaminated during refining. Sending even less than half of the 34 metric tons covered by the 2010 disposal pact to WIPP would take up about 68 percent of the present remaining storage space at the facility, according to the August 2015 Red Team report.

Transuranic waste bound for WIPP is already piled up at some of the 16 Cold War-era waste cleanup sites on which DOE’s Office of Environmental Management is still working. Meanwhile, new plutonium refining, whether for Pentagon programs or commercial fuel rods, generates new transuranic waste.

Enlarging WIPP would require Congress to modify the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act of 1992, under which the federal government took over a parcel of land about 25 miles outside of Carlsbad, N.M. Besides the congressional action, New Mexico would have to sign off on such a modification.

A DOE spokesperson in Washington said the agency “cannot comment on the President’s FY 2017 Budget Request before it is delivered to Congress.”

Meanwhile, a new High Bridge report has surfaced indicating DOE’s plan for storing excess defense plutonium at WIPP at some point in the distant future could lead to a nuclear criticality, in which densely packed plutonium goes into an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.

“The plutonium packaging endorsed by the DOE will be crushed over time as the salt chambers in WIPP close up, creating a high likelihood of an uncontrolled criticality,” reads a Feb. 3 report High Bridge prepared for MFFF prime CB&I AREVA MOX Services.

The new report, “Impact of Surplus Weapons Plutonium Disposition on WIPP,” also raises security questions about DOE’s proposed dilution process, in which treated plutonium “retains the same isotopic structure and therefore retains its value as a source of weapons material,” according to High Bridge.

Even without congressional buy-in the White House may be able to get the 6 metric tons of diluted plutonium— technically transuranic waste, once down blended and mixed with other solids — to WIPP.

That material, part of a tranche of roughly 13 metric tons declared surplus in 2007, is stored at the Savannah River Site and has long been slated for interment at WIPP. In a final Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement issued on Dec. 24, DOE said it preferred to dilute the 6 metric tons of non-pit material at Savannah River, then pack it into casks and send it to WIPP. That decision will only become final once DOE releases a record of decision confirming that preference.

The source said DOE has completed just such a record of decision, which the department has been sitting on since Jan. 24.

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