If you don’t like the tens of thousands of “superfluous” nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, or any nuclear weapons for that matter, you should be encouraged to know that the U.S. and Russia agreed, in the years after the Cold War ended, to dismantle thousands of them and destroy the nuclear explosive. This was formalized in two agreements: the U.S.-Russia High Enriched Uranium Agreement of 1993, otherwise known as Megatons to Megawatts; and the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement of 2000.
Under Megatons to Megawatts, the nuclear explosive in about 15,000 weapons has already been destroyed: it was turned into zero-carbon electricity in U.S. civilian nuclear reactors. It was the biggest example in history of turning swords into ploughshares.
The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement requires the U.S. and Russia to each destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium—enough for about 8,500 weapons each—in a similar way, by burning the material in nuclear power reactors.
To uphold its end of the plutonium bargain, the U.S. is building a plant—called the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF)—to turn the plutonium pulled out of missiles into reactor fuel. This was the first new nuclear facility in decades to be licensed in the U.S., and it has been a very complex undertaking. Construction of the plant, which is located at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, began in 2007. The plant today is about 60 percent complete. It must be operational by 2016, or the federal government will be in breach of a legal agreement with the South Carolina state government.
That in-operation date could be in jeopardy if the U.S. federal 2014 budget does not continue funding the construction. Because of the agreement with South Carolina, any delay past 2016 will cost the federal government money—exactly what the budgeteers are trying to avoid today. That would be a serious setback to the president’s much-touted anti-proliferation agenda: the plutonium agreement is the very model of international anti-proliferation cooperation that he has called for since becoming president. It is the first time the superpowers have agreed to IAEA oversight of a facility that is related to their once-top-secret weapons complex, and is thereby the first concrete step on the part of the two most important NPT weapons states to fulfill their part of the NPT Grand Bargain. I would argue that an operational Savannah River plant would represent the president’s only anti-proliferation success, and the only development during his presidency that backs up the Nobel prize he won in 2009.
What threatens the continuation of the plant’s construction? The biggest factor is the triangular partisan fiscal wrangle between the two houses of congress and the executive branch. Many, many currently funded government programs and initiatives are in jeopardy because of this, not just the Savannah River project. The worry is that the big budget casualties will be the ones that have the least public sympathy; and pretty much anything beginning with the word “nuclear” could conceivably fall into that category.
To their everlasting shame, the professional anti-nuclear lobby—which consists of self-styled experts whose self-appointed bailiwicks include the environment and security—has consistently opposed the Savannah River project. It is easy to understand anti-nuclear “environmentalist” objections. The plant will make MOX (mixed oxide) fuel for nuclear reactors, which nuclear utilities in the U.S. will get at a discount from regular fresh uranium fuel. This will make the converted military plutonium fuel even cheaper than fresh uranium fuel, which is part of the reason nuclear electricity is among the cheapest types of electricity on the continent. There is nothing that “environmentalists” hate more than cheap grid-scale electricity that comes with no carbon: that proves it is possible to live the modern lifestyle cleanly, and the greens hate the modern world. Nobody in their right mind should listen to them.
As for the those who fancy themselves experts on nuclear security, I cannot fathom why they would oppose the permanent eradication of 34 tons of military plutonium from the face of the earth. This crowd has been harping for years about the dangers of reactor-grade plutonium: while they were wringing their hands over this substance, true proliferators like Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, Iran, and North Korea were busy building serious bomb programs. Nobody should listen to them either.
In fact, I doubt any serious person does listen to them. The problems that threaten the Savannah River MOX project are simply political: a partisan unwillingness to compromise with the other party. Most serious policymakers in both parties in both houses of congress know this is the only real anti-proliferatoion program going. The president knows he needs a real anti-proliferation success to justify his 2009 Nobel Prize. He may also know that the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet is the biggest source of zero carbon electricity in the country, and that it is essential to meeting any of his stated climate change goals. For these reasons, I think the MOX project will survive in Budget 2014.