You may or may not know that the US and Russia, in 2000, signed a disarmament agreement. In that agreement both sides pledged to turn 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, which could then be combined with uranium for use in commercial reactors and directed toward peaceable applications like generating electric power.
In the US that mammoth project would be handled at an aging plutonium factory in South Carolina which was called the Savannah River Site. This 310-square-mile site had previously been devoted to creating weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear warheads. With the new agreement, the site would turn our warheads into nuclear fuel rods.
The Department of Energy (DOE) initially estimated it would cost about a billion dollars to convert the facility. Construction began in August 2007 and was expected to be complete in 2016.
The US government even had a customer for the new fuel rods, Charlotte-based Duke Energy, one of the largest nuclear power companies in the country.
At the present time, seven years after the conversion project began, the MOX plant is 60% built. However, it is now looking likely that it will never be completed.
For one thing, although the US government has successfully converted weapons-grade uranium into nuclear fuel rods, doing it with plutonium is proving to be much more complicated. The new plant is going to require 85 miles of piping, 23,000 highly technical instruments, and 3.6 million feet of power cabling.
Also, as you might guess, the project is vastly over budget, having cost thus far more than $5 billion. Estimates to complete the conversion are in the neighborhood of $6 to $7 billion more, plus another $20 billion or so to actually convert the plutonium over a 15-year time span.
In its new budget submitted last month, DOE is effectively mothballing the entire project for the foreseeable future. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has said of the project that “it’s a major fiasco, a classic boondoggle, and billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted.”
DOE, in fact, has a reputation for mismanaging big complicated projects, particularly those related to nuclear energy. A nuclear waste treatment plant in the state of Washington has seen its costs almost tripled, to a total of $13 billion. A uranium processing facility in Tennessee once estimated to cost around $1 billion is now at $11 billion and running 20 years behind schedule, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Not surprisingly, DOE was not willing to comment for this article. Also not surprisingly, as we all know well, and as the director of the US Nuclear Infrastructure Council was willing to comment, “Everything they touch turns out to take longer and cost more.”
Construction snafus at Savannah River were not the only problem. Only a year after the project began, Duke Energy pulled out of its commitment to use the converted nuclear fuel, because the government could not, or would not, guarantee a steady supply of the fuel. In addition, with the price of uranium falling so far by about 70%, neither Duke nor any other utility has much incentive to use the much more expensive converted fuel.
So DOE must now figure out what to do with all their plutonium. Options are mentioned which even include going back to the Russians and renegotiating the original agreement. Russia, meanwhile, has already begun shipping its own converted plutonium nuclear fuel rods to one of its own reactors, according to World Nuclear News.
There are now 13 tons of weapons-grade plutonium sitting at the Savannah River Site. If the new MOX plant does not start converting at least a ton a year by 2016, DOE must begin removing it from South Carolina or pay the state up to $100 million in penalties every year for up to five years.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has criticized DOE for wanting to abandon the project. South Carolina’s Attorney General, Alan Wilson, is suing the Obama administration to keep the project going, saying that to abandon it “is a clear violation of law and a blatant disregard for the will of Congress.”
So, while the political and legal battles play out, 1800 workers continue to build a facility the administration does not want to finish, to make fuel the energy industry doesn’t want to buy.
[from an article published in Bloomberg Business Week, May 4 2014 issue]
As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by
NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis