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Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce electricity in American reactors. For years, half the fuel used by American power reactors was purchased from the Russian weapons program.

Then in 1996, three years after that program began, the Energy Department declared that it would take substantial quantities of plutonium out of its inventory. Most would be converted to reactor fuel, just as the bomb-grade uranium was. The National Academy of Sciences had recommended that method in 1994. After the uranium or plutonium has been used in a power reactor, a little bit of it remains in the fuel assemblies but it is not suitable for weapons use.
Maria Korsnick toured the MOX Facility in Sept. 2016.
In 2000, the United States and the Russian Federation reached an agreement, under which each would dispose of at least 34 tons of plutonium, an amount that could be made into thousands of warheads. In 2010 the two sides agreed that the plutonium would be turned into reactor fuel, a blending of uranium oxides and plutonium oxides, in ceramic form, called Mixed Oxide fuel, and known as MOx.

But four years ago, the Obama administration had second thoughts. The uranium had been easier to convert than the plutonium, and in the face of delays in getting the factory built, the Energy Department said it was looking at other options.

To date, though, DOE has not decided on a viable alternative path, and the United States remains obligated to follow the agreement with the Russian Federation to render the plutonium unsuitable for weapons use.

Former Senator Richard Lugar, co-author of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program for reducing the risk of nuclear weapons material going astray, said in a blog post that it would be wrong to bury the material or find some other way of disposing of it. “The Russians have long opposed burying the plutonium because it doesn’t really destroy the material, as burning the MOX in a reactor does—it can be retrieved and reused for nuclear weapons purposes.”

“Given current tensions with Russia, any renegotiation of the plutonium agreement could require us to make costly or damaging concessions,’’ he wrote. “Stopping the MOX facility now would derail one of the most important accomplishments in modern U.S.-Russian relations.”

Bill Richardson, secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, said in a statement, “There is tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and we don't need to add more by jeopardizing the plutonium agreement.

Former Senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington, said the idea to give up on the factory was an example of “inside politics and unwise budget maneuvers.” Failing to finish the job, he said, would be “extremely disappointing and risky to U.S. national security.”

Plutonium has always been used in uranium-based reactors. Although they are loaded with uranium fuel, only about five percent of the uranium is uranium 235, what physicists call “fissile,” the kind that splits easily. The rest nearly all of that uranium is uranium 238, which is very hard to split in the type of reactor operated in the United States. But uranium 238 is what physicists call “fertile,” meaning that if hit by a neutron, the sub-atomic particle that is released in fission and sustains the chain reaction, it will often absorb that neutron. It then coverts into plutonium 239, which is fissile. And some of that plutonium is then split, as fuel.

Some U.S. commercial reactors were designed to accept loading with a mixture of uranium and plutonium fuel, although that mixture is not commonly used in this country. Reactors that were designed for uranium fuel can accept plutonium with a few adjustments to their control systems.
Anticipating the operation of the South Carolina MOx fuel factory, important progress has been made over the years. Duke used four test assemblies in its Catawba 1 reactor for 36 months, ending in May, 2008. For that test, U.S. plutonium was sent to France, which has extensive experience using MOx in civilian reactors.

Isaiah was about 2,700 years too early for modern physics, and would not recognize any of this. But we can be confident he’d have endorsed the concept. He was, arguably, advocating for arms control.

The above is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

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