Meaningless, dangerous, super expensive – SAVANNAH RIVER SITE’s MOX project

The MOX plant has “become from my point of view a pretty meaningless program” that should now be killed.

“The irony of this whole project is that it basically started with a good goal, of eliminating weapons grade material with the idea that it won’t be available for weapons purposes,”  ”But then it sort of evolved into this program that provides a fairly significant subsidy to the plutonium economy. So in the end, we will end up with more plutonium.”

How a Massive Nuclear Nonproliferation Effort Led to More Proliferation, The Atlantic,  More than a decade of negotiations with Russia produced a clear winner, and it was not the United States. DOUGLAS BIRCH AND R. JEFFREY SMITHJUN 24 2013 SAVANNAH RIVER SITE, South Carolina – A half-finished monolith of raw concrete and rebar rises suddenly from slash pine forests as the public tour bus crests a hill at this heavily-secured site south of rural Aiken……..

Dark clouds hover over this ambitious federal project, 17 years in the making and at least six more from completion–if, indeed, it is ever completed. It lies at the center of one of the United States’ most troubled, technically complex, costly, and controversial efforts to secure nuclear explosive materials left stranded by the end of the Cold War.

This plant – and another just like it in Russia — is meant to transform one of these materials, plutonium, into commercial reactor fuel that can be burned to provide electricity for homes, schools and factories, essentially turning nuclear “swords into ploughshares.” The aim of the so-called Mixed Oxide, or MOX, plant is to ensure the material never winds up in the hands of terrorists.

In the right hands, only nine pounds of plutonium — an amount about the size of a baseball — could make a bomb as powerful as the one the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The world’s military and civilian nuclear programs have produced about 500 metric tons of pure plutonium, an amount that could fuel tens of thousands of nuclear weapons yet fit into a backyard shed. Countries with nuclear programs continue to add roughly two tons to this inventory every year.

Washington has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help secure or remove plutonium and weapons-grade uranium in dozens of countries. But the U.S.-Russia plutonium disposition program, which includes the Savannah River plant, is the U.S. government’s single most expensive nonproliferation project now, according to Michelle Cann, senior budget analyst with a nonprofit group called Partnership for Global Security.

Its aim is to eliminate 34 metric tons of U.S. plutonium — or 40 percent of the U.S. stockpile of military plutonium — in exchange for a similar destruction of 34 tons of plutonium in Russia.

But that noble goal has slowly turned into a classic Washington disaster.
The plant here –the core of the American half of the bargain –is so grossly over its original budget and so unlikely to achieve its original ambitions that lawmakers and government officials in Washington are on the verge of killing it –even though $3.7 billion has already been spent.

After four contentious, high-level recent government meetings – including several attended by the secretaries of State, Defense and Energy – the Obama administration has proposed to put the plant’s construction on life support, at a cost of $320 million in the next year, while it examines a cheaper method of eliminating the plutonium.

Blown deadlines, lax oversight, and design and construction snafus have transformed the project into an embarrassing symbol of mismanagement by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which auditors have repeatedly placed on the government’s “high risk” list of agencies vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.

And the original deal with the Russians that called for construction of the U.S. plant has been quietly altered and twisted to the point that Russia may actually emerge from the arrangement with more plutonium in its stocks, not less, experts say………..

work on the MOX plants in both countries has proceeded. But Congress so far has refused to approve any U.S. funding for the Russian reactor and fuel plant. Japan and the other Western countries that pledged money to the original effort also have not ponied up funds for the revised deal……..

the deal has not been popular among arms control and nonproliferation groups, which argue that it enables Russia to use U.S. funding and technical assistance to help design and fuel its new fleet of breeders, allowing it to expand its plutonium production in the future, or to help other countries – that buy Russian breeders –expand theirs.

Russia’s nuclear energy chief was quoted in the official government newspaper last year, for example, saying that Russia’s breeder reactors “are the basis of our competitiveness” in the global contest for nuclear plant construction contracts. The country is already discussing the sale of two to China. Anatoli Diakov, a Russian physicist who founded and directed an arms control and energy study center in Moscow, said in an interview that no matter what the United States does, Russia “is going to use the plutonium fuel” in breeder reactors.

“Down the road, we could see the MOX program in Russia lead to the creation of more separated plutonium, not less,” said Tom Z. Collina, a senior official with the Arms Control Association. “That’s one of the dangers of the agreement. It could ultimately defeat the original purpose…which is to eliminate stocks of separated plutonium.”

An administration official who has been critical of the cost overruns, says the effort does not deserve further funding because “it’s not going to do what it was supposed to do.” The official, who asked not to be named because he spoke without authorization, added that the deal “gives the Russians what they want and limits our options.”

Von Hippel said the MOX plant has “become from my point of view a pretty meaningless program” that should now be killed. “The problem…is that Russia doesn’t intend to dispose of its plutonium permanently, right?” he said. “In fact, it’s setting itself up to produce and recycle its plutonium indefinitely.” That creates risks “that this stuff will get stolen, so in fact the security situation gets worse.”
Pavel Podvig, an independent Russian arms control specialist based in Vienna, agrees.

“The irony of this whole project is that it basically started with a good goal, of eliminating weapons grade material with the idea that it won’t be available for weapons purposes,” Podvig said. “But then it sort of evolved into this program that provides a fairly significant subsidy to the plutonium economy. So in the end, we will end up with more plutonium.”http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/how-a-massive-nuclear-nonproliferation-effort-led-to-more-proliferation/277140/

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