The Bomb Plant: A MOX White Elephant?

The National Nuclear Security Administration may have a $10 billion taxpayer-financed white elephant on its hands based on Britain’s experience with a similar plant that has been shuttered after a decade of failed operations.

NNSA is building a French-designed plant to convert plutonium warheads into mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina. The United States’ MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility is over budget – already double the estimated costs – behind schedule and still has no commercial customers for the fuel. But the DOE is pushing ahead with construction at a time when international nuclear utilities are shuttering their failed MOX programs.

In Britain, the Sellafield MOX plant was a complete fiasco. Opened in 2001, it was vastly bigger than the DOE plant, designed to manufacture 560 tons of MOX fuel over ten years. (DOE’s MOX plant is supposed to process 34 tons in 15 years.) In reality, Sellafield produced 13 tons in eight years at a cost of $2.3 billion.

Just like the SRS MOX construction project, Sellafield was plagued by engineering failures. Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) finally halted the MOX production line at Sellafield in August.

A decade ago, British authorities said that Sellafield would convert most of its 100 tons of plutonium to reactor fuel. That never happened. (The British government refuses to disclose just how much it has invested in the plutonium.)

In 2010, the British press reported that Sellafield had reached an agreement with ten Japanese electrical utilities to buy MOX fuel produced from Japanese plutonium stored at Sellafield. The Japanese utilities agreed to pay for extensive upgrades. Chubu Electric Power in Nagoya was to buy the first consignment of fuel for its Hamaoka power station, and TEPCO, the Tokyo-based utility company that operated the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, was to take half of all the rest.

Then came the March 2011 earthquake, tidal wave and reactor meltdowns that destroyed nuclear power’s credibility in Japan, and Britain’s promises of salvaging Sellafield.

When Reactor Number Three at Fukushima exploded, it spewed plutonium from MOX fuel which had been loaded into the reactor the previous fall. Highly toxic plutonium particles were found as far away as 45 miles from the reactor site.

MOX is made by combining uranium with plutonium extracted from spent reactor fuel or recycled from unused nuclear weapons. The reactor meltdown eliminated customers for the fuel. Japanese plutonium stored at Sellafield appears to have little future as reactor fuel for that country. Prior to Fukushima, MOX was used in about two percent of the fuel burned in reactors.

Britain’s decision, according to Tony Fountain, the NDA’s chief executive is “…directly related to the tragic events in Japan and their ongoing impact on the power markets.” Britain finds itself with the largest single stockpile of plutonium in the world after decades of reprocessing.

Once Sellafield is closed, the only MOX plant operating will be the huge French government subsidized AREVA facility at La Hague, which has produced 1,500 tons of MOX fuel since 1995.

If it ever opens, the MOX plant at the Savannah River Site will be the only MOX fuel facility in the world outside France.

Test failures in a Duke Energy nuclear reactor of a weapons grade fuel array that would be like the fuel produced at Savannah River resulted in the company giving up its share in the Savannah River MOX plant. Professor Allison Macfarlane, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, said last week that MOX fuel rods burn three times hotter than fuel rods currently stored in spent fuel pools at civilian reactors.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government said the closure of Sellafield is only a temporary setback.

The plant closure cost 800 high paying jobs and has the nuclear industry in Britain pressuring the British government to announce a replacement plant. Last year, when National Security News Service reporters were visiting SRS, representatives of the British Ministry of Defense were inspecting the MOX construction site and meeting with U.S. and French officials.

British nuclear industry proponents want to do something other than bury the plutonium at Sellafield. They believe that burying the plutonium would waste billions of dollars worth of energy that MOX fuel could generate.

The British media reports that Cameron’s government is close to approving construction of a new $12 billion MOX plant on the Sellafield site despite objections from environmental activists and some scientists. The design will be a vastly scaled up version of the troubled Savannah River/Shaw-AREVA MOX plant which is scheduled to be completed in 2016 and in operation by 2018.

Some British scientists have been quoted in the media as saying that over time, plutonium-241 decays to americium-241, which will result in intense gamma radiation that would make storing the plutonium stockpile at Sellafield more complicated.

The University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment estimated the cost of a new plant at $4 billion to $6 billion but critics in Britain say that the much smaller Savannah River Site MOX plant is already at $10 billion and still several years from completion and that plant is just of fraction of what the proposed British plant would be in size. A British paper quoted energy policy analyst Steve Thomas of the University of Greenwich in London as saying, “The government would be crazy to consider building another MOX plant. MOX cannot be recycled.”

George Mason Professor Macfarlane said President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission will not select a new repository site, but will outline what issues need to be considered when selecting a new site. The United States does not have a long-term storage facility for high-level waste after it abandoned the Yucca Mountain site. The French and British do not have repositories, either.

Aiken County, South Carolina, sued the federal government for closing Yucca Mountain. The high-level waste at SRS was supposed to go to that repository and rate payers from nuclear power utilities have been paying into a fund to pay for it. Professor Macfarlane says that $26 billion fund is gone, and “we want it back.” Aiken County lost their lawsuit.

No scientist in the United States is studying how to safely store MOX fuel.