The Obama administration has reduced funding for the construction of a MOX fabrication plant at the Department of Energy's Savannah River site in South Carolina. The plant is about 60% complete but the Obama administration has asked Congress for US$320 million in its 2014 budget — down more than 25% from the current annual budget of US$435 million. In its budget request, the administration wrote that its high costs "may make the project unaffordable" and pledged to look for different ways to dispose of plutonium.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is being built to carry out a bilateral deal with Russia to dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium. However there is currently no agreed customer for the eventual MOX fuel, while Russia has decided to incorporate its plutonium into fuel for fast-neutron reactors rather than MOX for conventional reactors.
Planning for a MOX plant at Savannah River was first announced in 1998. The Department of Energy projected the construction and 25-year operating cost at US$1.8 billion to $2.3 billion, with operations starting in 2007. By the time construction began in 2007, the estimated construction cost had climbed to US$4.9 billion and the completion date had slid to 2016. In March, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that the construction cost has increased to at least US$7.7 billion, and the operational date will slip to 2019. Thus the estimated cost has risen from US$1.8 billion to US$7.7 billion, and start-up has slipped from 2007 to 2019. The project has cost US$3.7 billion so far, and the proposed allocation of US$320 million in 2014 represents less than 10% of the estimated US$4 billion required to complete construction.
Robert Raines from the National Nuclear Security Administration said that the project has suffered from rising costs, poor oversight, unrealistic expectations and inadequately designed critical components. He told a House appropriations subcommittee: "There was a tendency towards optimism in developing project estimates, assessing and assigning risks, identifying and locking in project requirements, and evaluating and monetizing the cost and schedule impacts of building a first-of- a-kind Hazard Category 1 nuclear facility."
Meanwhile, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing board is reviewing claims that the propsed MOX plant does not include adequate security measures. Watchdog groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nuclear Watch South and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, argue that "the risk of plutonium theft would be increased to an unacceptable level" if a federal contractor does not make "fundamental changes" to its plans to secure and account for material at the plant.
Shaw Areva MOX Services, which is building the plant, "proposes to rely on a computerized inventory system to meet certain NRC … regulations in lieu of conventional approaches that entail physical verification of plutonium items," the groups said in a statement.
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with Union of Concerned Scientists, argued the company "is proposing a cut-rate approach for plutonium accounting that will make it much harder to detect a diversion or theft of plutonium before it is too late." The "computer-heavy approach could also increase the vulnerability of their accounting system to cyber attack," Lyman said.
Shaw Areva MOX Services said its proposed system meets NRC standards requiring "a licensee to verify, on a statistical sampling basis, the presence and integrity of [sensitive nuclear material], with a 99 percent power of detecting losses of five formula kilograms or more, plant wide, within 30 days ..."
Problems associated with plutonium management and accounting were all too evident at the Sellafield plant in the UK in 2005. A broken pipe in the THORP reprocessing plant led to the leaking into a containment structure of 83,000 litres of a highly radioactive liquor containing dissolved spent nuclear fuel. The spill contained 160 kgs of plutonium − enough to build 15-20 nuclear weapons − yet the loss went undetected for at least eight months. The accident was classified as Level 3 ('serious incident') on the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale. British Nuclear Group Sellafield Limited was fined 500,000 pounds plus costs after pleading guilty to three serious, prolonged breaches of its licence conditions.
The UK Health and Safety Executive concluded: "An underlying cause was the culture within the plant that condoned the ignoring of alarms, the non-compliance with some key operating instructions, and safety-related equipment which was not kept in effective working order for some time, so this became the norm. In addition, there appeared to be an absence of a questioning attitude, for example, even where the evidence from the accountancy data was indicating something untoward, the possibility of a leak did not appear to be considered as a credible explanation until the evidence of a leak was incontrovertible."
References and main sources:
- Chris Schneidmiller, 14 May 2013, 'Nuclear Security Advances Risk Ignoring Plutonium, NGO Coalition Warns', Global Security Newswire, http://www.nti.rsvp1.com/gsn/article/nuclear-security-advances-risk-igno...
- Terry Atlas, 16 April 2013, 'Swords-Into-Plowshares Nuclear Venture Hit by Budget Cuts', www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-15/swords-into-plowshares-nuclear-venture...
- Douglas Guarino, 22 May 2013, 'NRC Panel Reviews Fears Plutonium Vulnerable To Theft', Global Security Newswire, www.nti.rsvp1.com/gsn/article/licensing-board-reviews-concerns-plutonium...
- World Nuclear News, 18 April 2013, 'Rethink slows MOX construction', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Rethink_slows_construction_at_US_MOX_plant...
- UK Health and Safety Executive report: www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/thorpreport.pdf