US could use canceled plutonium fuel plant to make new nuclear weapons
By Linda Pentz Gunter
After wasting $7.6 billion on a plan to manufacture a fuel that no commercial US nuclear reactor is designed to use, the US Department of Energy finally indicated last week that it will cancel the facility still under construction. That’s the (only partially — given the vast expense) good news. The bad news is that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would instead like to use the site to make nuclear weapons.
What got canceled was a long-overdue, vastly over-budget and totally unneeded MOX fuel fabrication plant (pictured above the headline in a photo by High Flyer © 2018.) The now abandoned MOX plant would have combined surplus US weapons plutonium left over from the Cold War with uranium extracted from irradiated commercial reactor fuel, into mixed-oxide or MOX fuel. The fuel was slated to be used in commercial reactors. (Technically, the MOX plant will only be officially canceled 30 days after the May 10 submission of the waiver letter to Congress. But there is little doubt there will be any change in the decision.)
The new proposal would turn one boondoggle — that at least had an albeit flawed non-proliferation agenda — into an overtly dangerous, and some argue unnecessary, proliferation operation. The South Carolina site would be converted into a plutonium pit production facility. Pits are the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons.
“Siting of new factories at SRS or elsewhere to produce the plutonium components of nuclear weapons is a provocative move that will further stimulate a nuclear arms race and result in a host of nuclear waste and toxic waste streams,” said Tom Clements, director of the public interest organization Savannah River Site Watch, in a press statement he released on May 10. Clements however, welcomed the cancelation of the MOX plant.
The MOX scheme was originally established as a joint project with Russia because Russia refused to vitrify or “immobilize” its surplus plutonium — the method preferred by the US at the time. A joint US-Russia agreement signed by the two countries in 2000, with several amended protocols signed in subsequent years, allowed the US to immobilize only part of its surplus plutonium inventory, while converting the rest to MOX. Immobilization would have led to burial rather than the re-use of plutonium in the civilian sector. Re-use crosses an arms control line and increases proliferation risks. In 2002, US immobilization plans were canceled in favor of all-MOX. By 2016, as US-Russian relations worsened, Russia suspended implementation of the agreement.
This helped pave the way for the less than graceful exit from the MOX plan which has now occurred. The looming prospect of another $50 billion in expenditures to complete the plant was another major disincentive.
Instead, the NNSA now says it will dilute 34 tons of plutonium with an inert substance and dispose of it at the deep underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. This exercise is estimated to cost just under $20 billion. This alternative “dilute and dispose” approach, says physicist Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “will be far safer and more secure than MOX.”
(It should be noted here that the WIPP dump suffered a serious explosion and release of radioactive materials in February 2014 that exposed workers and forced a prolonged closure. The price-tag for damage from the blast could top $2 billion, making it one of the costliest nuclear accidents in US history, according to the LA Times.)
The squandering of $7.6 billion on the MOX plant is made even more disgraceful by the fact that there was never a guarantee there would be any US customers for the fuel. Reactors that use MOX fuel must run hotter and the waste they produce is more highly radioactive. No US reactors are specifically designed to use MOX, a problem which raised both safety as well as economic questions. As with all commercial nuclear power reactors, there was no plan in place for irradiated MOX fuel management, storage or disposal.
In France, about 20 reactors can use MOX, but the percentage of MOX in the entire fuel inventory is only about 30%, and the percentage of plutonium in the MOX portion of the fuel is just 8%. After fissioning, MOX reactors still produce plutonium in their waste fuel, which cannot be reprocessed and repurposed into more MOX. So there is no net reduction of the plutonium inventory.
In other words, the whole MOX idea is an expensive exercise in futility. And maybe worse. In a new book by Gregory S. Jones, “Reactor Grade Plutonium and Nuclear Weapons: Exploding the Myths,” the author provides a technical analysis as to how reactor grade plutonium can be used quite easily and effectively for the production of nuclear weapons. In fact, he said, the US itself used precisely that in its 1962 nuclear weapons test.
This blows out of the water the standard mantra that only weapons grade plutonium can be used to make a nuclear weapon. It is harder, yes, but by no means impossible.
The production of new plutonium pits is also highly controversial. The US has set itself a course to produce 30 pits a year by 2026, ramping up to 80 a year by 2030. So far, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is the only facility designated to produce new pits and its output to date has been zero. Non-proliferation groups say there is no need to produce more pits — some argue that the pits will last long enough while others want to see a reduction in the US nuclear weapons arsenal.
At the Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Virginia in February 2018, LANL director, Dr. Terry Wallace, said that “while plutonium does not age, the pits will only last 85 years.” His argument was all about what is called in nuclear weapons parlance, confidence in the nuclear deterrent. “And you can’t project confidence if you don’t have a facility for production,” Wallace said.
What “confidence” actually means, said Dr. Robert Soofer of the Department of Defense at the same Summit, is “do we have sufficient nuclear weapons to deter China and Russia? Do we have enough to assure our allies? If you don’t have enough to deter, you invite aggression and make our allies nervous.”
(In an earlier essay we took issue with the whole notion of deterrence. You can read it here.)
Pit production has been craftily absorbed into what is known as stockpile stewardship, which sounds like some sort of benign care-taking operation. But…
“Stewardship means we have to modernize,” said Wallace.
And modernize, my friends, means make new nuclear weapons.