Fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change in one project: the Savannah River MOX spectacle

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.

These are real green jobs: workers at the Shaw-Areva Savannah River MOX plant, currently under construction. Around 4,000 jobs have been created by the U.S.-Russia agreement to turn the plutonium in nuclear weapons into electricity. The facility was the first new nuclear facility in decades to be licensed by the US NRC, and is a model of successful project management. Almost 60 pecent complete, the project may face cuts in the 2014 U.S. federal budget.

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.

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10 years ago

I know there are those who think you must cheer everything nuclear if you are for the technology overall, but I for one see no reason to rue delays or cancellation of MOX plants. It seems to me the only reason one would even bother developing and implementing a “recycling-in-name-only” technology like MOX at a time when there is certainly no shortage of uranium is that you have written of fast reactor technology and real fuel recycling exactly due to the spurious anti-proliferation arguments you argue against? Who really wins if nuclear recycling is defined as this expensive process that really does nothing to reduce the lifetime of the waste and produces quite a bit of extra waste at that? Store the plutonium in a safe manner while spending the money on fast reactor and fuel recycling R&D instead. A longer-term project for sure, but one actually worth the effort.

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Sorry, I meant “you” in the general sense, not you personally. Not sure if the consequences of having to renegotiate the time-frame for the agreement is all that impossible or problematic, but I guess we’ll see. 🙂

10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Money already spent should not influence decisions you make today. 60% done means nothing to the rational investor.
An example: Suppose the county approves building a bridge for $1 million. Halfway through the project an inventor claims he can build a different kind of bridge for $100,000, including tearing down the half-completed bridge. Do the county commissioners ignore the new approach because they have already spent $500,000? Or do they save $400,00 with the new approach?
Considering the financial literacy of politicians, I wouldn’t doubt they would choose wrongly, but that’s not the point.
Money already spent should not be a factor in your decision. If you’re in a hole, stop digging.

10 years ago
Reply to  Anders

Steve is Canadian.  You want to grouse about idiotic US nuclear policy, beat up on me.  That is, if you can handle me agreeing with you!

Giorgio Bertucelli
10 years ago
Reply to  Anders

“Store the plutonium in a safe manner while spending the money on fast reactor and fuel recycling R&D instead. A longer-term project for sure, but one actually worth the effort.” Absolutely I agree.

10 years ago

Agreement allround it seems. Possibly excepting the board of AREVA. 🙂

Uncle B
10 years ago

Aaaaah! enriched uranium reactors and their radio active waste storage – ever present missile targets for all enemies of America, even little 89 pound Asian girls crouched in Chinese “Space Station(s)”, mapping them, copying their “signatures”, computing, calculating, even aiming nano carbon super capacitor powered missiles, rockets, at them, doing the math, should the U.S. “default” on the loans. Pity we didn’t listen to the good old Jew, back in the day, who gave us the Thorium reactors – clean safe and benign waste, easy to handle.