As often stated, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts” … and opinions are flying around the U.S. Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) or MOX Project.
Unfortunately, these swirling perspectives may cloud the facts and misdirect decisions required to continue honoring America’s nonproliferation responsibilities under the existing weapons-grade plutonium disposal agreement with Russia.
Let’s clear away the opinions and return to the facts.
Under the layers of distracting opinion in the recently revealed Department of Energy (DOE) Red Team report, these five facts remain
- The MOX Project is the only isotopic-altering disposal method that fulfills our bilateral plutonium reduction agreement with Russia.
The focus of the agreement with Russia, known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), requires the countries’ surplus plutonium to be changed at the isotopic level to render the nuclear material unattractive for weapons use, not to store it in an unchanged isotopic state. Canceling the approved MOX Project will release Russia from international oversight of its plutonium disposition program. Selecting any other option to fulfill the PMDA will require renegotiation with Russia at an unfavorable time in international relations.
- The nuclear fuel development process at the MOX Project is not reprocessing and has no bearing on whether other countries pursue reprocessing technology.
Unlike reprocessing which separates plutonium from used nuclear fuel, the MOX Project process will use the existing U.S. stockpile of surplus weapons-grade plutonium as the source for the 4-6% plutonium used in creating MOX fuel.
- The Dilute and Disposal concept to bury surplus weapons-grade plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) inherently adds significant political complexity and physical challenges.
Under the Dilute and Disposal concept, challenges for a timely implementation would include:
- secure New Mexico state and local authorities’ approvals to receive the encased, unchanged surplus plutonium for permanent storage;
- develop transportation protocols to ship plutonium more than 1,200 miles across the United States to New Mexico from South Carolina;
- alter the Land Withdrawal Act managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow and monitor the WIPP facility’s ability to handle and secure plutonium;
- complete the WIPP Recovery project to reopen the facility and extend this pilot facility’s mission far beyond its original 25-year operating agreement;
- expand the physical space at WIPP, since interring just 13 tons of the 34 tons of surplus plutonium would fill 68% of the facility’s remaining unsubscribed capacity; and
- reduce annual progress on WIPP’s existing missions to compensate for the added plutonium disposal activity, including the DOE’s Environmental Management (EM) program.
- Increasing funding to the report’s identified $700 million level would accelerate the facility’s completion, allowing it to more quickly meet the program’s nonproliferation goals.
With current minimal funding, annual construction progress at the MOX facility is a steady 3-4%, meaning the facility is slated for completion in 11 years. With the increased $700-800 million funding recommended in the Red Report, this construction timeline would be accelerated and ancillary costs reduced. Since more than 80% of the needed materials and machinery have already been purchased and are onsite for installation, most of the remaining funding is for labor. Contrary to the Red Team Report’s surprising perspective, increased funding would not extend the construction timeline, but enable a more expedient completion.
- “It is vitally important to make a decision as soon as possible and secure consistent funding to prevent further degradation of the Pu [Plutonium] Disposition Program.” — Red Team Report authors
We agree. Inconsistent and uncertain funding has been a significant contributor to project delays.
These five facts remain unaltered by political perspectives or posturing agendas, and we encourage continued clarity in the discussion about fulfilling our nation’s nonproliferation commitments. For more factual analysis, read the complete High Bridge report examining lapses in the Aerospace report.