Obama seeks to terminate MOX project at Savannah River

10 February 2016

US President Barack Obama wants to scrap the Department of Energy's project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina that was designed to take plutonium no longer needed for nuclear weapons and turn it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

MFFF - January 2016 - 460 (Areva)
Areva says the MOX fuel plant is now 70% complete (Image: Areva)

The mixed-oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) - built as part of a long-standing agreement with Russia whereby each country would dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium - has been in a cold standby for two years.

Obama's Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal issued yesterday calls for the termination of the MOX project, which includes the MFFF. Instead the proposal wants a "change in plutonium disposition" and would appropriate $285 million for the DOE to "complete pre-conceptual design" for 'downblending'. In December, the US Congress had appropriated $340 million to support construction of the MOX facility.

This would mean that, instead of transforming plutonium into nuclear fuel, the Savannah River Site facility would be used to dilute plutonium and dispose of it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This would start in 2017.

Tim Scott, Republican senator for South Carolina, issued a statement on the proposed change yesterday, in which he said: "The United States cannot just terminate the MOX project and walk away from our long-standing international agreement with Russia to dispose of a total of 68 metric tons of weapons grade nuclear material. Throughout the Obama administration, his Department of Energy has consistently worked to undermine this vital project and attempted to spread misinformation about its progress."

Scott added: "As the budgeting process for Fiscal Year 2017 begins in earnest in Congress, I will continue working to ensure that MOX is funded at acceptable levels for the project to continue. Too much is at stake, and political games cannot take precedence over common sense."

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced yesterday that he is suing multiple parties for failing to meet commitments made to the state regarding construction of the MOX facility. Wilson argues that a 2003 agreement says the DOE should either remove one tonne of weapons-grade plutonium from the state or process it through the MOX facility. As the DOE has done neither, it owes the state $1 million a day, up to $100 million annually, beginning 1 January this year, Wilson said.

Work started on the MFFF in 2007, with a 2016 start-up envisaged. Although based on France's Melox MOX facility, the US project has presented many first-of-a-kind challenges and in 2012 the US Government Accountability Office suggested it would likely not start up before 2019 and cost at least $7.7 billion, far above original estimate of $4.9 billion.

The project has seen progressive cuts to its funding, with only $320 million requested for the facility in the 2014 budget, reflecting a slowing down of construction and associated activities as the DOE's National Nuclear Safety Administration embarked on a review of its plutonium disposition strategy. The project was placed on cold standby after being effectively cut out of the DOE's Fiscal Year 2015 budget request.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) signed an order on 13 November 2014 extending the completion deadline for the MFFF by ten years, to March 2025, at the request of its builder, Shaw Areva MOX services. It issued the original ten-year construction licence in March 2005.

The previous month, the NRC published an environmental assessment that found the licence extension "would not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment because it does not involve any additional impacts or represent a significant change to those impacts described and analysed in the previous environmental report and final environmental impact statement."

The NRC noted that its order also reflected some administrative changes to the construction permit, including the change in the licensee's name to CB&I Areva MOX Services to reflect Chicago Bridge & Iron's acquisition of the Shaw Group in 2013.

Maximum value

Areva said yesterday that the MFFF was "achieving maximum value from meagre funding"and was now 70% complete, up from 56% in 2013.

The company said Richard Lugar, a former Republican senator representing Indiana, had toured the MOX Project site earlier this month and had called on the DOE "to finish the job", since "much of the sophisticated instruments and equipment that will populate the building is already on site".

Another recent visitor to the facility, Georgia Republican senator Rick Allen, said: "This is a necessary piece of a comprehensive national security plan, and was reauthorized and funded by Congress again late last year. As the only real solution I see for our military grade plutonium, the MOX project is vital."

Areva noted that, according to their Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the USA and Russia must change their surplus plutonium at the isotopic level to render the nuclear material unattractive for weapons use.

"Though considerations have been raised about pursuing other non-proliferation options, none of the other methods change the plutonium's isotopic structure, so would require renegotiations with the Russians," Areva said.

Russian progress

Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, announced last September that it had started producing MOX fuel.

In a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the corporation's director general, Sergey Kirienko, said the agreement between Russia and the USA on the disposal of excess plutonium "is not needed".

"Russia and the USA have each launched the construction of MOX plants. The Americans have already spent $7.7 billion and eight years on building theirs, but at the start of [last week] the US Congress announced that, with no end in sight, they are halting construction. We also have a MOX facility, which we built in two-and-a-half years for RUB9 billion ($136 million). The plant is in operation," Kirienko said.

The director general of the Mining and Chemical Combine in Krasnoyarsk told World Nuclear News that month the enterprise's MOX fuel fabrication facility would increase its annual production of fuel assemblies from 20 in 2015 to 400 in 2017. These will be the first nuclear fuel assemblies for the BN-800 fast neutron reactor - unit 4 at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant in the Sverdlovsk district.

Rosatom said yesterday that the BN-800 reactor had successfully completed tests under its first power program - at 50% of its nominal capacity over 72 hours. The company expects to be able to apply soon to regulator Rostechnadzor for the next stage of the reactor's program, during which the unit will be brought to 100% capacity and enter commercial operation.

The 789 MWe BN-800 Beloyarsk 4 is fuelled by a mix of uranium and plutonium oxides arranged to produce new fuel material as it burns. Its capacity exceeds that of the world's second most powerful fast reactor - the 560 MWe BN-600 Beloyarsk 3.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News