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Weekly Basket: Thinking Outside the MOX

 Volume XVI No.25: June 22, 2012 

Remember your parents telling you that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is? Well, that principle applies equally to federal programs and clearance racks at discount stores. The difference is that while consumers learn from buying a lemon, our government too often keeps spending in hopes of making lemonade.

Take the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Program (MOX), for example. Based at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, MOX has remained a promise undelivered since its inception in the early 2000’s. Yet despite a continuously ballooning price tag and incessant construction delays, MOX’s every failure has been rewarded with increased funding.

In the 2001 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the United States and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium–enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons–by processing it in nuclear reactors to create energy. Hence, the MOX program: the plutonium is blended with depleted uranium and turned into something that can be fed into a normal reactor. Usable energy is created, and the by-products of the reaction are no longer weapons-grade in terms of volatility. This sounds like a good deal: Meet our requirements for plutonium disposal while simultaneously creating energy.

Unfortunately the program has not quite gone according to plan. Almost a decade behind schedule, the original estimated cost of the facility has tripled to nearly $5 billion, and the estimated annual operation costs more than doubled since just 2010 to nearly $500 million. With the plan expected to operate for twenty years, that’s at least $10 billion.

Then there’s the problem of what to do with the MOX fuel once we create it. Until 2008 the Department of Energy (DOE) had a contract to provide Duke Energy with the fuel, but Duke let the contract expire, leaving the DOE without a buyer. While MOX fuel can be processed in normal reactors, some retrofits are required since it burns hotter than normal nuclear fuel, speeding up wear-and-tear. These retrofits would be federally funded, of course, as would sales of the fuel in order to make it economically desirable for the energy companies.

Think about it: that’s a $15 billion investment to create fuel that we’re going to have to bribe companies to take.

The MOX program’s shortcomings are so notorious that Congress finally called them out. On June 6th the House passed an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 Energy and Water spending bill sponsored by Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) that transferred $17 million from the MOX program budget to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). It was a thoroughly justified gesture of dwindling faith in this failing project, but $17 million is a drop in the bucket for the MOX program’s budget. And an even better deal for taxpayers would have redirected all of the money slated for MOX to pay down our outrageous debt.

Turning lemons into lemonade sounds appealing, but it’s pointless if no one wants to drink it. MOX has failed to prove itself viable on the open market, and there’s no need to invest taxpayer dollars in another research program when safer and more affordable plutonium disposal options already exist. It’s time to listen to your parents and cut our losses with this lemon.
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