This “dilute and dispose” (D&D) approach is a significant improvement over what has been the plan for more than a decade: mix the plutonium with uranium to produce mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear reactors and dispose of the resulting spent fuel in a geological repository.
The facility that would produce the MOX nuclear fuel is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The United States has already spent some $4.5 billion for construction, and tens of billions of dollars more would be required to complete the project and dispose of the plutonium.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has long opposed the MOX program because putting plutonium in commercial nuclear fuel that would be shipped around the country greatly increases the vulnerability of this weapons-usable material to theft. The new D&D approach would be safer—as well as simpler, quicker, and likely far less expensive—than the current program.
The rising cost estimates that have dogged the MOX program have driven the Obama administration to look at alternative approaches. In 2002, the DOE estimated the full cost of the program at $5 billion (in constant 2015 dollars). In 2014, the GAO cited a 2013 DOE estimate of $24 billion, but then later in 2014 the DOE suggested a $30 billion life cycle cost. In early 2015, the Aerospace corporation, an independent consultant hired by the DOE, concluded the cost could be between $50 billion and $114 billion (!?!) in constant dollars.
The most recent look at alternatives for disposing of plutonium, a Senate-mandated “Red Team” study led by Thom Mason of Oak Ridge National Lab, questioned the high end of that estimate. They found that the MOX program would cost $700-800 million per year and some 30 years to complete, while the D&D approach would require about $400 million per year over roughly the same period of time. Equally important, the Red Team noted that the MOX program has a “high level of technical complexity and risk” while the D&D approach is “relatively simple” and there is reason to believe the “political and regulatory risks could be successfully managed.”
Congress Gets Its Say
Unfortunately, Congress has yet to endorse the DOE’s new plan, at least not explicitly. The House Energy & Water appropriations subcommittee took the strongest position, soundly rejecting the DOE proposal to allocate $270 million for shutting down the MOX program. Instead it increased the allocation to $340 million and mandated that the money go toward continued construction of the MOX plant. The subcommittee did, however, authorize a National Academy of Sciences study to examine the dilute and dispose approach. Despite the plethora of existing studies, this is a reasonable idea. The Academy’s technical gravitas may help bring closure to the issue.
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) also stipulated that construction of the MOX plant continue, but it offered the administration a waiver that would allow DOE to instead pursue the D&D alternative. The waiver, which is complicated but achievable, comprises a four-part submission to Congress:
The fourth criterion reveals the committee’s underlying support for dropping the MOX program. As noted above, the Red Team report estimated that the D&D approach would “cost roughly half the cost of the MOX program”—just as the HASC requires.
On the Senate side, the Energy & Water appropriators decided to duck the issue. They announced that they would let the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which writes the National Defense Authorization Act, decide the fate of the administration’s proposal. While they provided the $270 million in funding requested by the administration, they said not a word about what to do with the money.
We will not know what the SASC will do until after it releases its bill, which will not happen before mid-May. There are rumors that Sen. McCain, the Republican chair of the SASC and a long-time opponent of government waste, isn’t happy with the MOX program or the D&D alternative, as the price tag for either option is significantly greater than the early cost estimates for disposing of this excess plutonium. I would hope he recognizes that $400 million per year is a lot less than $800 million per year.
Problems to Address
Given the significant cost savings predicted for the dilute and dispose approach, as well as the reduced technical risk, why is Congress not jumping on the D&D bandwagon? There are four main reasons.
1) The only existing geological repository–the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico—has been shut down since 2014 when a single waste drum buried underground overheated and released small quantities of radioactive material. Prior to this shut down, WIPP had been operating for years as a disposal site for so-called “transuranic” waste, including plutonium diluted with other materials that is similar to the diluted plutonium that would be produced under the D&D plan.
The DOE hopes to resume partial operations at WIPP by the end of this year by moving at least one waste container temporarily stored above ground at the site to the excavated underground permanent storage area. However, fixing and enhancing the ventilation system at WIPP continues to be a challenge, and activists in New Mexico doubt the DOE will achieve its goal any time soon. The good news is that there is time, since under the new D&D plan DOE would not begin shipping diluted plutonium to WIPP until 2021 at the earliest.
2) Even if WIPP can be reopened, it is not certain that all of the 34 tons of plutonium declared excess to U.S. military needs will be able to fit in the currently allowed underground storage spaces. The volume of transuranic waste WIPP can accept is limited by the federal WIPP Land Withdrawal Act. My colleague Ed Lyman did an extensive analysis of options for storage at WIPP. Our current judgment is that it would be possible to emplace most, if not all, of the diluted plutonium at WIPP without changing the Land Withdrawal Act. The Red Team report also concluded there were “techniques for disposal efficiency” that might obviate the need to amend the law.However, the DOE is unwilling to state that all or most of the plutonium can be placed in WIPP (assuming it opens) until it does due diligence on required environmental reviews. So when the DOE discusses the D&D plan, it talks about “WIPP or a WIPP-like facility” as its preferred option for disposal.
3) Russia may object to the revised U.S. approach. As mentioned above, in 2000, the United States and Russia signed an agreement that committed each country to dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium. In 2010, the agreement was altered to allow both Russia and the United States to modify the approaches they would take to dispose of their plutonium. The Obama administration correctly states that the United States can change its disposal approach without renegotiating the agreement, which allows for the parties to change their disposition methods, but both parties must consent to the new plan.
And the most recent signs from Moscow are not good, with President Putin criticizing the dilute and dispose option. A Russian spokesperson provided a reason for Putin’s objection, claiming that the new approach would still allow the plutonium to be used for a nuclear weapon. Specifically, the spokesperson asserted that, if the United States ever extracted the diluted material from the geological repository, because dilution does not change the plutonium’s “isotopic composition,” it would still be weapons-usable.However, the Russian argument is flawed. It is true that the plutonium could be recovered and used for nuclear weapons, but that would be the case even if the isotopic composition was changed. As my colleague Edwin Lyman and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University explain in this memo, changing the isotopic content of the plutonium would not pose a significant barrier to either the United States or Russia should they decide to reuse it in weapons.Nonetheless, as the memo explains, there is a straightforward way to simultaneously address Russia’s objection and help two U.S. allies, Japan and the United Kingdom. Both countries are looking for a path to dispose of their excess plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel. Mixing a small fraction of their plutonium with the plutonium from the U.S. weapons program would alleviate Russia’s concerns, while still leaving the D&D approach simpler and less expensive than the MOX plan.
4) The final problem the administration faces may be its greatest challenge, and that is the political support the pork-rich MOX program has generated, particularly in South Carolina. Senator Lindsey Graham has made extending the MOX program his highest goal, and has argued at every available opportunity, loudly and vociferously, against the administration’s new proposal. He has the support of other politicians in South Carolina, including some Democrats. They have two main goals: getting plutonium out of South Carolina (a reasonable proposition) while keeping federal tax dollars flowing into the state. The latter goal seems to have the higher priority.
As noted above, some $4.5 billion has already been invested in the MOX plant, and tens of billions more would be required to complete the project. However, as described above, the level of funding required to complete the MOX plant is more than Congress is willing to spend, particularly when a cheaper options is available. It is only a matter of time before the MOX project is abandoned.In that light, my colleague Ed Lyman has developed a proposal for an alternate use for the unfinished MOX building, and one that should be very attractive to in-state supporters. He suggests that the building could be used as a nuclear security center of excellence and international training center. As Ed notes, the MOX plant “is a nearly complete, industrial-scale building designed to meet stringent security requirements, making it an ideal site for a nuclear security training center that could help reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and preserve the site’s economic value. Nuclear security forces from around the world could develop and test strategies at the MOX complex for defending sites from terrorist groups seeking to steal nuclear-weapons-usable materials or cause a radiological disaster via sabotage.”
In sum, there are solutions to the problems that the DOE faces in shifting to the dilute and dispose approach. They are not necessarily quick or easy, but they are still quicker and easier than the deeply flawed MOX approach. In the end, it may not be this year that Congress accepts the new plan, but the change is coming.
Featured photo: Geological salt beds at WIPP, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.]]>
A Russian spokesman elaborated on Russia’s objections to the proposed “dilute and dispose” approach, arguing that the “only way to irreversibly turn plutonium into a material not usable in a nuclear weapon is by changing its isotope composition. Any chemical method is reversible.”
U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, who oppose the Obama administration’s new plan because of their staunch support for the old plan–to complete construction of an enormously expensive factory in their state to incorporate the plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel — seized on Russia’s objections as a reason to stick with the MOX approach.
However, the argument provided by the Russians to oppose the new plan does not hold up to scrutiny. As explained by my colleague Dr. Edwin Lyman and Dr. Frank von Hippel of Princeton University in this memo, changing the isotopic composition of the plutonium would not render either Russia or the United States incapable of using the material in nuclear weapons should they decide to do so. Other factors, including prompt burial in an underground repository and international monitoring, will be far more important to keeping us all safe.
Nevertheless, the memo describes a relatively straightforward solution to Russia’s concern: mixing the U.S. plutonium with reactor-grade plutonium imported from the United Kingdom or Japan, which both also happen to be looking for a disposal path for their excess plutonium.
While more complicated that simple dilution and disposal, this option would still be cheaper than the MOX plan. So supporters of the MOX program shouldn’t use this Russian red herring as a reason to keep their pork project alive.
See the memo for a more detailed explanation, and a wealth of footnotes. For an alternative use for the partially completed MOX plant in South Carolina, see our proposal to turn it into a a nuclear security training center of excellence.]]>
Although the U.S. government initiated the Nuclear Security Summit series and has coaxed other nations to bring “gifts” in the form of concrete steps to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, its own commitments have been modest. It has provided funding and expertise to establish nuclear training and support centers in other countries, generically called “centers of excellence,” but it has not established such a center here at home.
Repurpose the MOX Facility
The MOX complex provides the United States with a golden opportunity to remedy this situation. The facility was intended to be the centerpiece of a program to dispose of approximately 50 metric tons of plutonium that the United States no longer needs for nuclear weapons by fabricating it into MOX fuel for nuclear power plants. MOX facility construction has already cost taxpayers about $5 billion, however, and it will cost another $7 billion to $9 billion to finish it. If completed, it will cost another $15 billion to $35 billion over the next several decades to produce the fuel and implement the program.
Cost overruns and projected delays have prompted the Obama administration to try to terminate the program and develop less costly alternatives. Unfortunately, elected officials from South Carolina are continuing to protect this facility in classic pork-barrel fashion. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the project’s most outspoken supporters, has repeatedly raised questions about the site’s future if the program is cancelled.
To date, the administration has said nothing about how the multibillion-dollar building might be repurposed. But it is doubtful that there are any cost-effective alternate uses for it as a nuclear material processing facility. In the absence of alternatives, the MOX facility seems destined to endure as a half-built monument to poor planning and political dysfunction.
The good news is the MOX plant is a nearly complete, industrial-scale building designed to meet stringent security requirements, making it an ideal site for a nuclear security training center that could help reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism and preserve the site’s economic value. Nuclear security forces from around the world could develop and test strategies at the MOX complex for defending sites from terrorist groups seeking to steal nuclear-weapons-usable materials or cause a radiological disaster via sabotage. The site would provide a venue for training in perimeter defense strategies and the tactics used in close quarters combat, augmenting the less comprehensive offerings at centers of excellence in other countries.
Experience has shown that security plans that look good on paper may be deeply flawed in practice. The United States regards force-on-force performance testing as the gold standard for assessing guard effectiveness at commercial and government sites. Most countries do not mandate such testing, however, in part because force-on-force performance exercises are difficult and potentially dangerous to carry out at operating nuclear facilities. The repurposed MOX facility could host force-on-force tests for both domestic and foreign security organizations and help standardize security team performance internationally.
Any plan to turn the MOX facility into an international training center would need to address the challenges of providing access to foreign nationals. Fortunately, the MOX facility is physically isolated from sensitive activities at the Savannah River Site, and there is a precedent: the United States already provides training for international safeguards inspectors at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
In sum, it makes no sense to continue to waste taxpayer dollars on a facility to produce MOX fuel. On the other hand, it makes complete sense to establish a nuclear security training center of excellence at the MOX facility site. User fees could provide a steady source of funding for the project, and the U.S. government could provide the training personnel.
Doing so would not only make good on the promise of jobs for the regional economy for decades to come, but also would reinforce the Savannah River Site’s role as a leading institution promoting nuclear security worldwide.]]>
On February 9, the Obama administration unveiled the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, its final annual submission to Congress of this kind. In recent years, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons and for helping to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has seen its top-line budget increase even as government spending as a whole remains tightly constrained. Read More]]>
On February 9, the Obama administration unveiled the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request, its final annual submission to Congress of this kind. In recent years, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons and for helping to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has seen its top-line budget increase even as government spending as a whole remains tightly constrained.
The FY 2017 request continues that trend, with a total request of $12.9 billion for the NNSA, compared to the $12.5 billion provided in FY 2016. However, that top-line hides a trend that also continues this year: The funding for U.S. nuclear weapons programs—already the vast majority of NNSA dollars—has grown over the years, while funding for programs to halt the spread of nuclear weapons has been declining regularly.
Specifically, the FY 2017 budget request for Weapons Activities is $9.2 billion, compared to the FY 2016 budget of $8.8 billion. The FY2017 budget request for nonproliferation programs overall is $1.8 billion, whereas the FY2016 budget stood at $1.9 billion. Looking just at core nonproliferation programs, the budget shows even starker declines.
Within the reduction in the nonproliferation budget, however, is the biggest single piece of good news in this year’s NNSA budget request: The agency is proposing to terminate the program to dispose of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for power reactors. The Union of Concerned Scientists has long called for canceling the MOX program because it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to fissile material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Instead of completing a MOX fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, the administration plans to undertake a project to dilute much of the excess plutonium and dispose of it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) repository in New Mexico. The NNSA will begin the process with 6 metric tons of impure excess plutonium currently stored in South Carolina.
However, the agency still faces some significant hurdles before it can use the dilute-and-dispose process for an additional 34 metric tons of plutonium that the U.S. committed to dispose of via the MOX fuel route under an agreement with Russia. For example, in 2014, the Obama administration attempted to put the MOX facility in “cold standby.” Congress rejected that plan, insisted that construction continue, and provided additional funding for it. This may happen again. Also, the WIPP facility was closed in 2014 because of a radiation leak, and officials hope to reopen it by the end of 2016. Additional environmental analysis will likely be necessary. And Russia will have to agree to a change in the proposed disposition method.
Despite these obstacles, the administration appears committed to pursuing the “dilute and dispose” option. Several independent reports commissioned by the Department of Energy concluded that the cost to complete the MOX program would be significantly greater than initial estimates, and that alternative approaches to disposing of the excess plutonium would be more affordable and less risky. Their conclusions were similar to those in a January 2015 UCS report that assessed a number of safer, cheaper alternatives to MOX, including the option of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at the WIPP facility.
To carry out its plans, the NNSA is proposing to cut the MOX budget from $340 million for construction in FY 2016 to $270 million in FY 2017, and use that money to terminate the program. The NNSA is planning to begin pre-conceptual design as soon as possible for the dilute and dispose option and complete conceptual design in FY 2017. The budget request asks for permission to use $3-5 million for this work in FY 2016 and FY2017
Unlike in past years, when for example some life extension programs were delayed or accelerated by years, there are no major changes to the nuclear weapons plans in the FY 2017 budget request. Instead, there are a few small hiccups. In particular, the ramp up in work on the life extension program for the W80 warhead, to be used in the controversial new nuclear-armed cruise missile under development, has been slipped slightly. This is because the FY 2016 funding for the program, which included a major increase, was not provided until December 2016, too late to allow the full workload for the year to be completed. As a result, rather than asking for $312 million as had been planned in last year’s request, the FY 2017 request is only for $220 million. The budget request hints at some schedule delays as well, but insists the NNSA will still deliver the first production unit by FY 20205, in order to meet the Air Force schedule for the cruise missile.
The largest program in the weapons budget continues to be the life extension program for B61 gravity bomb, and by a considerable margin. For FY 2017, the request is $616 million, down slightly from the FY 2016 budget of $643 million. In contrast, funding for the W76 life extension program is only $223 million, down from $244 million for the previous year. The B61 life extension program is much more expensive than that for the W76 warhead, even though the B61 bomb constitutes a far smaller portion of the total nuclear stockpile than the W76, which is the work horse of the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles. For comparison, reportedly 480 B61-12s are planned, while some 1,600 W76-1s are being produced. Despite that disparity in production numbers, the total cost of the B61 program is around $10 billion (or $20 million each), while the W76 will cost a more modest $4 billion (or $2.5 million each).
One positive development is implementation of a promise the Obama administration made at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to increase by 20% the rate at which the NNSA dismantles retired nuclear weapons. As a result, the budget request for dismantlement has increased by 33%, from $52 million in FY 2016 to $69 million in FY 2017. The increase will mean that weapons already retired by 2009 will be dismantled by FY 2021, one year earlier than previous plans. However, the overall dismantlement rate, which has hovered at around 300 weapons for several years, is far below the rates of 1,000 or more warheads dismantled annually during much of the 1990s.
Aside from the good news about the MOX program described above, nonproliferation programs have faced tough times for several years running. In 2009, the Obama administration was planning to increase funding for these programs over time, from around $1.4 billion annually to $2 billion by 2014 (not including MOX funding). Instead, the top-line for core nonproliferation programs (excluding MOX) has fallen to around $1.2 billion. In part, this is a result of Russia’s lack of interest in continuing some programs combined with Congressional opposition to funding any work in Russia in light of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine. NNSA officials also point to the track record of accomplishments that have addressed some of the greatest concerns about fissile materials not secured globally, a real success story.
It is also worth noting that this funding includes money to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to contain Iran’s nuclear program, one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments. According to officials at the NNSA, the amounts are relatively small—some $3 million in nonproliferation and arms control and $10 million in materials management budgets. The Iran deal is an enormous success at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. (Most of the cost of implementing the Iran deal is borne by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the administration’s budget requests $190 million for FY 2017 for the agency. More money will likely be required in the future to implement the JCPOA, but this burden will be shared by other partners in to the agreement.)
Efforts to rebuild the nuclear weapons complex have created lots of problems for the NNSA. The Obama administration first sought to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility, a massive facility that would undertake work to support the production of new plutonium pits used in the primary of nuclear weapons. However, cost estimates for the building skyrocketed and the need for new pits was delayed significantly, so that effort collapsed.
Next the NNSA sought to move forward on the Uranium Processing Facility, which would build the components using highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the secondary of nuclear weapons. The initial budget for the project was $600 million to $1 billion, but by 2013 had increased to $6.5 billion. However, when it became clear that the existing plans had a major flaw that would require an expensive re-design and further drive up overall costs, the NNSA brought in a “red team” to look at alternative approaches. The team proposed breaking the initial phase of the project into three separate buildings, and delaying inclusion of additional capabilities until later phases. By breaking the project apart this way, the NNSA managed to keep the budget of just the three buildings in the first phase at $6.5 billion.
To complete work on the UPF redesign, the NNSA is asking for $575 million, a $145 million increase over the FY 2016 level. Over $1.5 billion dollars has been spent already on the project, and the final design is still unfinished.]]>
The Phase 1 Aerospace report, which was delivered to Congress in April of this year, analyzed two of the plutonium disposition options that had been studied by the PWG: the MOX fuel option, which is the current baseline, and the “downblend and disposal” option.
The MOX fuel option involves using the plutonium as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. DOE is currently constructing a plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina that would fabricate mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from the ex-weapons plutonium, but the estimated cost of completing the plant has skyrocketed. Moreover, this option would make the plutonium more accessible to terrorists. The downblend and disposal option entails blending down the plutonium with an inert material and disposing of the mixture in a geologic repository such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. (WIPP is currently not accepting waste following an accident involving a waste drum in February 2014, but is projected to resume operation within the next several years.)
The Phase 1 report confirmed the PWG’s findings that the MOX option would be far more expensive than the downblending option and has a far higher level of programmatic risk. The Phase 1 report provided strong support for DOE’s aspiration to suspend the MOX program and pursue a cheaper and less risky alternative like downblending. However, Congress continues to fund construction of the MOX plant to the tune of roughly $350 million per year for reasons of the pork-barrel variety.
The Phase 2 report supports “downblend and disposal”
The Phase 2 report addresses the remaining options discussed in the PWG report but not included in Phase 1: irradiation of plutonium in advanced fast neutron reactors (as opposed to the MOX option, which would use current generation light-water reactors); immobilization of plutonium with high-level radioactive waste and disposal in a geologic repository (other than WIPP, which cannot accept this kind of waste); and direct disposal in deep boreholes.
The Phase 2 report takes a generally unfavorable view of these three options in comparison to downblending, citing their technical challenges. It concludes that “downblend is the least complex [alternative] in design and operations and has the lowest cost-risk.”
The report is particularly negative about the prospects of the advanced disposition fast reactor, which it considers even more technically challenging and higher in cost-risk than the current MOX program. Even though there is little prospect that DOE would seriously consider fast reactors for plutonium disposition, other countries, such as the United Kingdom, continue to study the option. Policymakers in those countries would be well advised to pay attention to the Aerospace report’s assessment.
While UCS generally agrees with the Phase 2 report, we think that it is too pessimistic about the prospects for plutonium immobilization, and that further study of potential immobilization alternatives as backup options to downblending is warranted.
The Phase 2 report provides additional insight into the reasons the MOX project has proven so difficult and gone so far off track. The report points out that the unique plant design requires equipment to be fabricated and installed within tight tolerances, necessitating highly skilled trade workers, but the contractor has had difficulty locating suppliers and subcontractors able to do the exacting work to high quality standards. This could partly explain why, as DOE testified to Congress earlier this year, the project has a “rework rate” of 25%, meaning 25% of the construction and installation work has to be torn out and redone.
The MOX project contractor, CB&I Areva, hired a firm called High Bridge to do its own critique of the downblending and disposal option. In a recent report, High Bridge asserted that disposing of the entire inventory of excess plutonium in WIPP would cause serious safety problems. However, these concerns are overblown and should be put into context. The safety, security and environmental risks of the MOX program, which would involve far more processing of plutonium in above-ground facilities, including irradiation of MOX fuel in reactors, would be far greater than any incremental risk resulting from an increase in the quantity of plutonium to be disposed of in WIPP.
Congress should stop wasting taxpayer money on the MOX boondoggle and allow DOE to pursue a course that will be less expensive and will have a far higher chance of success.
For more information about this issue, see the January 2015 UCS report: “Excess Plutonium Disposition The Failure of MOX and the Promise of Its Alternatives”]]>
Earlier this month, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted its long overdue report “Tritium and Enriched Uranium Management Plan Through 2060” to Congress. Read More]]>
Earlier this month, the Department of Energy (DOE) submitted its long overdue report “Tritium and Enriched Uranium Management Plan Through 2060” to Congress. The report, prepared in response to several requests from the House and Senate appropriations committees, is in part an assessment of the availability of enriched uranium in the United States for use in military applications—primarily, production of tritium for nuclear weapons and fabrication of fuel for naval nuclear propulsion reactors.
The report finds that the United States has sufficient enriched uranium from various sources to meet these needs, with low to moderate risk, until around 2040 for tritium production and 2060 for other uses.
The analysis refutes arguments by supporters of the American Centrifuge Plant project, finding that the United States will not need to build a dedicated uranium enrichment plant for military uses for decades. And that time could be pushed even further into the distance—and hopefully to infinity—if the U.S. greatly reduces the quantity of military uranium it will need in the future by undertaking deep cuts in its nuclear weapons stockpile and converting naval reactors to use fuel made with low-enriched uranium instead of highly enriched uranium.
The inventory of uranium that the United States can use for military purposes is limited because most commercially produced uranium is “obligated” for peaceful use under various international agreements. In addition, some U.S.-government produced uranium not governed by international peaceful use obligations is otherwise “encumbered” by unilateral U.S. peaceful-use declarations. Thus, without violating or modifying those commitments, the U.S. government is restricted to using uranium that it has already produced for possible military use or building a new uranium enrichment plant based on a wholly indigenous technology free of peaceful-use obligations.
But the second option is problematic, because it would entail a U.S. decision to build a new, government-owned uranium enrichment plant specifically for military purposes, excluded from International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. This would send exactly the wrong signal internationally at a time when the United States is trying to minimize the spread of uranium enrichment facilities and ensure that those countries that already possess such technology, such as Iran, make firm, verifiable commitments to peaceful use. Construction of such a facility would also be hard to justify in light of U.S. disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The Union of Concerned Scientists welcomes the findings of the DOE report and encourages Congress to assist the department by providing funding, where necessary, to maximize utilization of the stockpile of unobligated uranium that the United States already possesses. For example, the United States could down-blend additional highly enriched uranium to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for tritium production, which would require congressional appropriations.]]>
If the threat of terrorism against critical infrastructure in the United States has indeed diminished to the extent that these actions are appropriate, UCS never got the memo.
In fact, according to a report recently released by the House Homeland Security Committee, the Islamic State has to date inspired or directed 17 attack plots on targets within the United States. Justice Department officials said this month that domestic terror groups pose an even greater threat to the U.S. than foreign groups like the IS. And the NRC staff, as recently as March of this year, said publicly that the general credible threat to the nuclear sector has not decreased since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Yet by their actions, the NRC commissioners appear to be partying as if it’s still September 10. In doing so, they are failing to uphold their obligation to protect public health and safety and assure the common defense and security. Instead, they are handing the nuclear industry just about everything that it wants.
One decision concerns the protocols for NRC-run “force-on-force” inspections of nuclear power plant security. I’ve written often about the importance of these inspections, currently conducted every three years. They involve the use of a team of mock terrorists to test the ability of nuclear plant security forces to protect their facilities from radiological sabotage attacks that could cause a reactor meltdown or damage to spent fuel in storage pools. (Spent fuel stored in dry casks is not designated as a target for force-on-force tests: a big loophole.)
The tests are crucial because the NRC learned a long time ago that having a good security plan on paper was not a guarantee that a plant security force could effectively carry out the plan in practice.
The tests are intended to be as realistic as possible, but they have significant limitations. For one thing, they lack the element of surprise, which is one of the most critical tactical advantages of a real attacking force. A nuclear site must be notified well in advance of the inspection to ensure that security forces know that it is not a real attack and to give the plant management time to implement measures to maintain safety and security during the tests. However, the more advance notice the NRC provides, the more time and resources become available for plant management and security forces to prepare for the test, and the less representative the test will be of an actual surprise attack.
In the force-on-force test program that was carried out in the 1990s, nuclear plants were given 6-12 months’ advance notice, and plant managers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting ready. (Even so, about 50% of the plants failed the test.) But after the 9/11 attacks, when the program was revamped and strengthened, the NRC staff mandated that the notification period should not be greater than 12 weeks because “a longer notification window might not provide as accurate an assessment of typical security force readiness.”
But in a paper dated (perhaps inauspiciously) September 11, 2015, the staff proposed that the notification window be increased again to 9-15 months so that the inspections could be included in the regular periodic notice of all upcoming inspections that are sent to licensees, which according to the staff would “minimize disruptions to the NRC and licensees without impacting the integrity of the inspection program.” And on October 6, the four sitting NRC commissioners voted unanimously to approve the change.
Now, if only the NRC could schedule a real attack 15 months in advance, we’d be all set.
In the second decision, the commissioners voted to approve another staff proposal submitted on September 11 of this year and postpone the schedule for developing new requirements for protecting spent fuel in dry cask storage from sabotage by five years. (Commissioner Jeff Baran wanted a 1-year delay but was outvoted.) This move will delay the effective date of the rule from the end of 2018 to the end of 2023.
There are a number of good reasons for implementing this rule sooner rather than later, but perhaps the most important one is that the current rules do not provide adequate protection of dry casks from certain types of terrorist attack scenarios, as the NRC has acknowledged publicly.
While UCS strongly supports the expedited transfer of spent fuel from dangerously overstuffed pools to dry casks, which will reduce risk, we also want to ensure that fuel in the dry casks will not pose a significant danger to the public. Although we have concerns with the proposed security rules, they provide the best hope for upgrading dry cask protection to address any outstanding vulnerabilities.
Also, given the significant number of reactors that will be decommissioned over the next decade and will need to build or expand dry cask facilities to store their spent fuel, it makes no sense for the NRC to wait to develop the new requirements, which could affect the types of casks that utilities will purchase and the way they will be stored. (This assumes, of course, that the new security rules ever get implemented at all. Given the experience of a recent rulemaking on containment vent filters that the NRC first delayed and then terminated, a rulemaking deferred is often a rulemaking denied.)
We see these votes as manifestations of an ominous trend. The nuclear industry has complained bitterly about the security upgrades imposed after September 11 and has lobbied incessantly to roll them back, even though the security threat has not lessened. It seems that it finally has the full support of the NRC’s senior management and the commissioners.
The NRC needs to stop protecting the industry and start defending the public.]]>
This shouldn’t be a surprise: Even the most shameless pork-barrel politician should be embarrassed to keep asking taxpayers to pony up nearly $1 billion a year for the next 30 years—the amount that nearly all parties agree is the minimum needed to successfully complete the project. Yet even if Congress were to provide full funding today there is no guarantee the money flow would be sustained over decades, given all that could go wrong along the way.
This is why the Department of Energy (DOE), which is the program’s sponsor and strongest advocate for more than a decade, now wants to pull the plug, if only Congress would let it do so.
The MOX program had a noble goal: taking thousands of nuclear bombs’ worth of plutonium produced for the military and converting it into fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors. But MOX’s main problem has always been that it is far cheaper to just throw the plutonium away.
DOE’s preferred approach is to “downblend” the excess plutonium by mixing it with an inert material known as “stardust”and package it as waste for disposal in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. As confirmed by the “red team” tasked by DOE Secretary Moniz to take a fresh look at the various options for plutonium disposition, the downblending process is far simpler than MOX, would require much less new capital investment, and has already been used to dispose of several metric tons of excess plutonium.
The red team report estimates that the approach would cost about half as much as the MOX program and would have much less technical risk. This assessment takes into account the fact that WIPP is currently not accepting waste because of the accident that it experienced in February 2014 but is projected to begin operating again by the end of 2016.
However, the less glamorous WIPP disposal option never had the same appeal to many policymakers, who fought to keep MOX as the one and only alternative for plutonium disposition.
Today, the situation is this: DOE estimates the total construction cost of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility—only one element of the full program—will cost $12-14 billion, approximately 10 times greater than the initial projection. Of this, $4.8 billion has already been spent, implying the project is at most 40% complete.
But this may not present the whole picture because, according to DOE witnesses at the hearing, the remaining work to be done is more difficult. Another complication that emerged at the hearing is the fact that 25% of the support equipment that has already been installed, such as electrical cable trays and piping, will require “re-work,” meaning that it will have to be ripped out and replaced. In fact, at the hearing Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) pointed out that in its rush to qualify for fees based on placement of equipment, the contractor placed equipment in areas where it actually blocked access to other equipment, presumably with the knowledge that it would have to be moved again later at additional cost to the taxpayer.
The contractor, CB&I Areva MOX Services, disputes the total cost figure and claims that the plant is nearly 70% complete. As Rep. Cooper pointed out, “the contractor is supposed to be working for us.” But a spirit of cooperation is not apparent from the behavior of MOX Services, which has launched a rogue campaign to promote its view of the conflict (using whose money, one wonders) and hopefully keep the dollars flowing.
MOX Services commissioned a supposedly independent assessment from a consulting firm called High Bridge, which produced a thick report criticizing the red team’s conclusions, defending the MOX program and casting doubt on the viability of the WIPP alternative. The report asserts that the red team’s assessment of the WIPP option underestimates (1) the technical risk of relying on WIPP to accept the entire U.S. inventory of excess plutonium; and (2) the political risk of asking for Russia’s consent to change the disposition option that is referenced in the current version of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA).
There is no question that the February 2014 WIPP accident cast doubt over the safety of DOE’s operations at the site. But one also has to consider the alternatives. If DOE is unable to safely operate what is essentially a fancy hole in the ground for burying nuclear waste, then how can we reasonably expect it to safely oversee the far more complex and hazardous MOX program? In fact, the High Bridge report failed to mention that all nonessential environmental management operations were currently suspended at the Savannah River Site following September 3 near-criticality accident at the HB-Line, a facility being used to produce plutonium oxide for use as feedstock in the MOX plant (should it ever operate), and that SRS does not have a projected date for resuming operations at HB-Line and other facilities that support the MOX programDOE is going to have to up its game no matter what alternative is chosen.
And although one shouldn’t underplay the WIPP accident, in which plutonium was released underground from a defectively packaged waste drum, there was far less plutonium release to the environment than could result from an accident at an above-ground facility such as the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility or at a nuclear reactor using MOX fuel.
High Bridge also harps on the limits of WIPP capacity established by the Land Withdrawal Act, claiming that the legal limit on waste volume would have to be changed to accept the entire inventory of surplus plutonium. But the report ignores the numerous options that the red team discussed for addressing WIPP capacity issues.
For instance, waste volume is currently calculated based on the volume of a waste drum, not the volume of waste within the drum. This might make sense when the drum is packed solid with various transuranic wastes, but not when the actual waste only takes up a very small fraction of the drum volume, as is the case with downblended plutonium. If the actual waste volume and not the drum volume were credited, then the amount of downblended plutonium that could be emplaced in WIPP would increase by a factor of 50 or so. This means the projected available capacityfor waste at WIPP of around 19,600 cubic meters could accommodate over 2000 metric tons of downblended plutonium–much greater than the current excess plutonium stockpile of less than 50 metric tons. (This option would still require the excavation of additional repository waste drifts, however, which would require consent by the state of New Mexico.)
The other issue raised by High Bridge as a major obstacle is whether Russia will accept a U.S. approach that would involve geologic disposal of the entire excess weapons-grade plutonium stockpile, given that Russia reportedly rejected such an approach back in 2000 when the initial U.S.-Russian agreement was being negotiated. (Russia did not object to the U.S. disposing of a fraction of the excess plutonium by immobilizing it with high-level waste.) Russia expressed concern that by directly disposing of weapons-grade plutonium rather than irradiating it in the form of MOX fuel in a nuclear reactor, the isotopic content (e.g. the relative quantities of plutonium isotopes Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-238 and so on) would not be changed to “reactor-grade” and therefore the U.S. could quickly dig the plutonium up and return it to use in nuclear weapons.
First, it is important to realize that the Russians’ position was political posturing without a technical basis. DOE had previously made public a statement (confirming the views of many independent experts) that the U.S. and other advanced nuclear weapon states were capable of using reactor-grade plutonium to make nuclear weapons without any reduction in reliableyield. Changing the plutonium isotopics might pose a minor inconvenience but would not render the plutonium unusable in weapons. Russia would be far better off by supporting an option that would downblend and bury weapons-grade plutonium in WIPP on an expedited timetable rather than waiting (perhaps forever) for the MOX option to be implemented.
However, if the Russians do ultimately object to the WIPP option because it doesn’t change the plutonium isotopics, there is a way out. In a little-noticed appendix to the red team report, a proposal is outlined in which 3-9 metric tons (MT) of reactor-grade plutonium from the United Kingdom could be shipped to the U.S. and blended with U.S. weapons-grade plutonium to increase the Pu-240/Pu-239 ratio to above 0.1, the threshold defining weapons-grade plutonium in the PMDA. Although this would increase the cost of the WIPP option, it would still be far cheaper than MOX. And there would be plenty of room in WIPP to accommodate the additional plutonium if, for instance, the method for calculating waste volume discussed above were adopted.
In fact, before the red team report came out in August, UCS was in Japan putting forth a similar proposal that would use Japanese reactor-grade plutonium instead of British plutonium. Japan also has a surplus plutonium problem, with 11 MT in Japan and nearly 37 MT held by the U.K. and France. The U.S. could even purchase 10-20 MT of Japanese plutonium for its equivalent value as reactor fuel (around $160-300 million) and still save tens of billions of dollars compared to the MOX option. This approach would kill two birds with one stone by helping to deal with Japan’s own plutonium surplus and rendering moot any Russian objection to disposal of weapons-grade plutonium in WIPP.
In summary, there are obstacles to successful implementation of the WIPP approach, but they pale in comparison to the problems that would be experienced should the U.S. decide to press forward with MOX.
Congress needs to give DOE the space to develop a solution that will allow safe and secure disposal of excess plutonium without busting the budget.]]>
Given this warning, one might think that the U.S. Read More]]>
Given this warning, one might think that the U.S. government would not hesitate to utilize every tool at its disposal to protect the nation’s stockpile of weapon-usable plutonium from cyberattack-assisted thefts. Yet on April 23, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) turned a deaf ear to the alarm sounded by the White House.
By a slim majority vote, the NRC upheld a deeply flawed approach for monitoring plutonium at the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, now under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina by the Department of Energy (DOE).
The plan’s effectiveness depends critically on the integrity of the computer systems that carry out automated operations and collect data on the plutonium being processed. Yet the NRC approved the approach even though the plant applicant, CB&I Areva MOX Services, does not yet have a cybersecurity plan in place for protecting those systems from hackers. The NRC’s decision rests on the assumption that whatever plan MOX Services eventually comes up with—which could be many years from now—will be good enough.
Although the MOX plant, as a U.S. government-owned facility, would normally be exempt from NRC oversight, Congress gave the NRC the authority to license the MOX plant. The purpose of this action was to ensure that the plant would have an independent regulatory review, given the many safety and security lapses that have occurred at DOE facilities over the decades.
But the NRC asserts that it does not need to review a cybersecurity plan for the facility in order to grant an operating license because the NRC doesn’t currently require that fuel cycle facilities like the MOX plant be protected against cyberattacks. (It’s working on developing such requirements.) This laissez-faire approach to cybersecurity is not responsive to the White House call for use of the “full range of tools across the spectrum” to deal with the severity of the threat.
UCS has been providing expert assistance to local citizens’ groups that challenged the MOX plant licensing for more than a decade. Over the years, the groups have won some important concessions, including a commitment by MOX Services to improve its plan for plutonium monitoring.
But those changes don’t go far enough to offset the cyber vulnerabilities inherent in the system. If the MOX plant ever operates—a big “if,” given the financial and logistical challenges it faces—it will expose U.S. plutonium to an unacceptable risk of theft.
UCS released a statement last week condemning the NRC’s action and highlighting the thoughtful dissent of NRC commissioner Jeffrey Baran.]]>
The results it shows are stunning: The cost to complete the MOX program going forward are $47.5 billion, 90% higher than the comparable estimate from just a year ago. And that is only if Congress significantly increases funding to $500 million per year, about $150 million above the current level of support. If funding continues a roughly the current level, the total cost would rise astronomically, to $110 billion and the MOX plant would not even start operating until the year 2100.
As I wrote in an op-ed that appeared yesterday in The Hill: “The new cost estimates for the mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel program doom this ill-fated program.”
UCS has long opposed the MOX program not only because of the high costs, but also because of the nuclear terrorism risks it creates in both Russia and the United States, the two countries that each agreed in 2000 to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium. For example, in the United States, the security requirements for the plutonium under the planned MOX program have been so weakened that the risks of theft would be far higher than if the material was simply left where it is now: in secure storage.
The good news is that there are viable, less costly and safer approaches to disposing of the excess U.S. plutonium. My colleague Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist, produced a recent report on MOX alternatives that identifies a number of feasible down-blending options for disposal of the excess plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico that would not significantly impact repository operations. The new Aerospace report suggests the costs of that approach would be $17.2 billion—still high but a far more reasonable figure. The Department of Energy continues to evaluate other attractive alternatives to MOX, like plutonium immobilization.
Now is the time for either Congress or the Obama administration to step up and cancel this ill-conceived, expensive program, and move on to a more affordable, less dangerous approach.]]>