Perry scraps completion of US MOX facility

16 May 2018

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry has written to Congress informing it that he has effectively ended the project to construct a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The facility, about 70% complete, was intended to dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium by turning it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

MFFF - January 2016 - 460 (Areva)
The MFFF facility, pictured in January 2016 (Image: Areva)

Work started on the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (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 USD7.7 billion, far above original estimate of USD4.9 billion.

The project has seen progressive cuts to its funding, with only USD320 million requested for the facility in the 2014 budget, reflecting a slowing down of construction and associated activities as the Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) 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. President Obama's Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal, issued in February 2016, called for the termination of the MOX project.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission 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.

In a 10 May letter to Senate and House of Representative committee leaders, Perry said he was executing a waiver included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 to end construction of the MFFF. The facility was being built as part of a 2000 agreement with Russia whereby each country would dispose of 34 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. Russia - which had agreed to dispose of the material in fast reactors - suspended the agreement in October 2016.

"I can confirm that the Department is committed to removing plutonium from South Carolina intended to be disposed of in the MOX facility," Perry said. "We are currently processing plutonium in South Carolina for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and intend to continue to do so."

He said the DOE will now pursue the "dilute and dispose" option for disposing of the 34 tonnes of plutonium. Under this option the Savannah River Site facility would be used to dilute plutonium and dispose of it at WIPP.

"I certify that the remaining lifecycle cost of the dilute and dispose approach will be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost of the MOX fuel programme," Perry said. "The Department's independent cost estimate concluded that the remaining dilute and dispose lifecycle cost is USD19.9 billion. The Department estimated the remaining lifecycle cost of the MOX fuel programme to be USD49.4 billion."

Perry said the DOE will work with authorities in New Mexico "to address the capacity issues related to the receipt of the full 34 tonnes at WIPP". The DOE is also "exploring whether any of the plutonium currently in South Carolina can be moved elsewhere for programmatic uses", he added.

A joint statement issued the same day by Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, DOE under secretary and NNSA administrator, said: "An evolving and uncertain geopolitical landscape calls for the United States to recapitalise its defence plutonium capabilities." They propose the MFFF be repurposed for the production of plutonium pits, the core of nuclear weapons.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News