America’s plutonium: bury it, dilute and dispose or use it to produce MOX fuel?

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A Moseley reader draws attention to this Reuters special report by Scot J. Paltrow, summarised here with added material.

The United States has a vast amount of plutonium and, under the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, agreed to transform it into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for civilian reactors that generate electricity. Russia agreed to destroy the same quantity using a MOX reactor. Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

The agreement was suspended by President Putin in 2016, according to this video. Forbes reported that Putin publicly accused the U.S. of failing to live up to its non-proliferation commitments and told journalists that Russia had already built its own MOX-producing facilities to fulfil the treaty (in 2015 Russia completed its first commercial MOX fuel fabrication facility). He added that any alternative method, like disposal in New Mexico, would allow the U.S. to retrieve weapons grade material if we wanted.

The United States had never before built a MOX plant and no U.S. civilian reactor had ever used MOX as fuel. An Energy Department panel reported in 2016 that there is no US market for MOX. To use MOX fuel rods, civilian power plants would have to modify their reactors, requiring lengthy relicensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The report said the best the Energy Department could hope for was to give the stuff away.
There have been cost overruns; in 2007 the Energy Department said the total cost would be $4.8 billion, but now the estimated cost is more than $17 billion. There have also been severe delays (see below, the Savannah River complex); work began in 2007 to build a MOX plant that was to be operational by November 2016. The Energy Department now estimates that, if allowed to proceed, it will not be finished until 2048. A detailed account of reasons for the delay is given in an article on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website.

The U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River Site, with the unfinished building which was meant to make plutonium safe seen in this aerial image, taken near Aiken, South Carolina, U. S. January 31, 2018.

In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo in Texas, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day.

The Energy Department, during the Obama administration, favoured closing down the MOX project, but Congress overruled it. The federal budget adopted in February, however, specifies a means for ending the project, if a study shows that dilute-and-dispose would be at least 50% cheaper than making MOX. President Donald Trump has sided with the Energy Department in wanting to kill the MOX project because of the extreme cost overruns and delays.

The MOX project at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina employs about 2,000 people. It has been kept on ‘life support’ by Congress due to the influence of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and other Congress lawmakers who say MOX is the best way to keep plutonium out of the hands of terrorists and note that the pact with Russia requires the United States to use MOX as the method for disposal.

 

 

 

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