How Did the MOX Project Get So Expensive?
Over the past week or so, I’ve engaged in a “root cause analysis” project to determine why the US is having so much difficulty implementing a plan to take 34 metric tons of nearly pure plutonium 239 — a fissile isotope with virtually the same energy value as uranium 235 — out of our nuclear weapons program and beneficially use it as a source of fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
It’s a fascinating tale with several branches, but here is the spoiler up front. The root cause seems to be encapsulated in the following quote from a recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists titled Can the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement be saved?
Many experts were skeptical about the MOX option, not least because it would provide a significant boost to the plutonium economy, eventually leading to wider acceptance of plutonium in the civilian nuclear industry.
Resisting the Plutonium Economy
Long-time readers of Atomic Insights will recall several posts over the years about the pitched battle against the “plutonium economy” that started sometime in the early 1960s. The battle began after the Glenn Seaborg-led Atomic Energy Commission issued a report pointing out how fast breeder reactors–along with thermal breeder reactors using U-233 and Th-232–could provide enough fissile material to fuel nuclear power plants for hundreds to thousands of years. Those plants would be able to provide as much power as human society could ever desire.
For most of the scientists and engineers involved in producing the report, and for many of the far-sighted optimists that read it, that was a tremendously exciting and positive prospect.
It didn’t please everyone. Though Seaborg’s report did not predict fission would replace all combustion — recognizing that there are a number of specific power consumers that are not well suited to using fission reactors — its message still must have scared the bejesus out of people that were prospering in the existing Hydrocarbon Economy.
They had to recognize that a plutonium economy could both flood the energy markets they considered to be “theirs” and would relegate hydrocarbon fuels to shrinking niches of the lucrative enterprise of powering society.
Of course, resisting the plutonium economy by clearly stating that it would harm the fossil fuel business was, even in the early 1960s, a strategy that would fall on deaf ears. Though people appreciated the mobility, indoor climate control, refrigeration, manufactured goods and other capabilities enabled by the power released by burning hydrocarbons, they did not love the gigantic multinational corporations that already dominated the system.
Replacement strategies using various tactical elements needed to be devised and employed.
One ingredient used in fighting the plutonium economy was to demonize plutonium, characterizing it as one of the most deadly substances known to man. Though there is an element of truth to that statement if the plutonium is used explosively to rapidly destroy a large city, it is a false claim if simply comparing the material’s chemical or radiological toxicity.
Another ingredient was actively seeking to make plutonium as commercially unattractive as possible. That effort continues, especially among a certain aging clique of Northeast US nuclear “non-proliferation” academics headquartered at Princeton and MIT. Several of the usual suspects signed a letter in September 2015 expressing their continued opposition to using plutonium to produce power.
The latest was mailed Tuesday [September 8, 2015] by more than a dozen prominent former arms negotiators and senior diplomats supporting the conclusions of a report completed last month by the Red Team, a group of industry experts assembled by Moniz to evaluate cost projections and alternatives to the MOX project.
The signatories included former nuclear arms negotiators Robert Einhorn and Robert Gallucci; former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Joseph Nye; former White House director for arms control and former Pentagon and intelligence official Henry S. Rowen; former head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Jessica Matthews; former Nuclear Regulatory Commission members Peter Bradford and Victor Gilinsky; National Medal of Science winner Richard Garwin, a designer of the first hydrogen bomb; and nuclear policy experts Henry Sokolski, Frank von Hippel, S. David Freeman and Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione.
Amusingly, the letter was addressed to one of the longtime thought leaders of the Northeast non-proliferation clique — Dr. Ernest Moniz. He is currently serving as the U.S. Secretary of Energy. Moniz, who has been testifying for the past several years that the MOX project is too expensive, was deeply involved in creating the framework that made the current MOX morass almost inevitable.
After his 2013 appointment, Dr. Moniz selected another Cambridge, MA based non-proliferation proponent, Kevin Knobloch, formerly the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to be his office gatekeeper, a job with the formal title of Chief of Staff. Between the two of them, they have found wonderful positions from which to ensure the realization of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Among their other tasks, they’ve spent part of the past 30-40 years asserting that turning Pu-239 from weapons into MOX for light water reactors is more expensive than simply enriching natural uranium and producing conventional low-enriched uranium fuel.
They’ve also cooperated in the effort to push a potential more valuable reuse option — metal alloy fuel for fast reactors — off the table.
Since they have made sure that their often-repeated predictions over the years have come true they are now claiming that the only remaining plutonium disposition option is similar to one that they have wanted to pursue for more than two decades. Instead of abiding by the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle, they want to mix the material with a diluent whose composition is classified and bury it deep underground without allowing any of the potential energy to enter into the world market.
Getting rid of the 34 tons covered by the 2000 vintage Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) in this manner is just a beginning; it will establish a precedent for throwing away all plutonium, at least in the U.S. Obviously, the anti plutonium clique wants us to conclude that if it is too expensive to use plutonium that is already nearly pure before it is even put into a fuel cycle, then it would be even more expensive to devise and implement a fuel cycle that begins with used fuel.
Recycling used fuel would require several additional steps compared to using material that is already separated.
In 1998, DOE Adamant About NRC Regulation
Using the logic that the MOX facility would be producing fuel for NRC regulated commercial reactors, the Clinton Administration’s DOE leadership — specifically DOE Secretary Bill Richardson, Deputy Secretary Elizabeth Moler, and Under Secretary Ernest Moniz — made the case that a MOX facility should be built and operated to NRC standards and should undergo an NRC licensing process.
On April 3, 1998, they sent Howard Canter, Director of DOE’s Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, to a meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to explain the proposal. An experienced project manager would run and hide from an assignment to attempt to build anything under the regulatory framework that was discussed that day.
No contractor would touch it on anything but a “cost plus fee” pricing basis. Here are a few illuminating quotes.
Canter: Based on a great deal of internal discussion in the Department, which has included the Under Secretary and the Deputy Secretary, there is one major unresolved issue, and it really centers around whether or not we will get legislation this year. How do we get going in the event we do not have legislation, and do we need legislation? So there are many questions.
DOE wants to issue this RFP and desires to moves towards NRC regulation and licensing. The Deputy Secretary was very adamant upon this yesterday, that this will be a licensed facility. But we are in some difficulty because we can’t issue the RFP without reaching some agreement on the NRC regulatory role and how it will start. The RFP has been prepared and it was totally approved, ready to go out the end of February on the basis of NRC being the regulator on this. However, we have got to make sure that we allow for this period of transition in the start-up period, so we will have to make some changes to that.
The Department does want to go to NRC regulation on this. And the other things is we don’t want to mix it up with the much wider issue of external regulation of DOE. It is not — this is not a pilot project or something having to do with that program, although there will be a lot that is learned out of this from that program.
There are significant differences. Some of the reasons are that it is a private contractor, not a M and O contractor. We have even looked at such issues as who would own the facility. We have some options there. We can even consider the idea of leasing the facility, once it is created, back to the contractor, and a number of things to make this very clear how this would work, and very clear who has the NRC authority.
I agree with Commissioner McGaffigan that we do not want to end run the Congress on this thing. There is significant interest in the Congress. A number of the staff members have contacted me and they may be off writing their own legislation on this. In fact, I know, I think, of one case on the Senate side where they may be doing that right now.
One of the things that we are concerned about is dual regulation and dual oversight. In fact, there is even the potential for triple oversight here if we are not careful and plan this out properly between DOE exercising a degree of oversight, the NRC staff providing some oversight, and maybe even the Defense Board. And I think that would be a lot of confusion and, essentially, a disaster if we had that.
After substantial questioning by commissioners and attempts to answer by Mr. Canter, Commissioner Diaz summed it up pretty well.
COMMISSIONER DIAZ: And a second comment — you know, just for the record — there is probably, you know, one regulatory structure that can be created that is more cumbersome and more complex than the DOE and the NRC, and that is a mix — DOE and NRC.
As a matter of historical record, the construction permit for the MOX facility was issued in March 2005 and construction began in 2007 with a completely different contractor consortium than the one that won the design contract based on the 1998 solicitation.
MOX Project Status
No reasonable observer reviewing the current status of the MOX project could fail to conclude that the project is in trouble. Nearly $5 billion has already been expended; it costs about $350 million per year to keep the project treading water. Even at that level, the workforce is perpetually worried about continued employment.
Secretary Moniz likes to imply that the contractor has mislead the government about costs, that it continues to underestimate completion costs, and that the only remaining alternative to increasing spending to the level of a billion dollars per year for the next several decades is to terminate the project.
There have been a number of studies, some funded by the government, others funded by MOX services, the consortium of contracting companies building the facility. Here is a quote from the Executive Considerations section of the Plutonium Disposition Program Red Team Report.
The current lack of sustained funding for the MFFF project illustrated in Table 1, which shows planned (based on the MOX Services 2012 BCP) versus actual funding, has created an environment of intense uncertainty, ultimately manifesting itself through project inefficiencies and strained relationships between DOE and the contractor. This uncertainty has in-turn led to a lack of workforce confidence in program stability, resulting in low levels of staff retention (exacerbated by loss of the most qualified
workers), and low morale in the remaining workforce.
The downward performance spiral is accompanied by an upward cost escalation spiral that would eventually make DOE’s path-forward decision for them, but only after a great deal of money has been wasted. Project surety would instead lead directly to increased staff retention, resulting in reduced recruitment and training costs, increased ownership, and enhanced overall project performance. Should the MOX option be chosen for continuation, it is vital to create and sustain an adequate and stable funding profile. Indeed, consistent support will be vital for any path forward.
Aside: Dr. Moniz commissioned the Red Team (pg. A-3). It was largely made up of contractors employed in the DOE’s national laboratory system (pg. B-1) whose continued income depends partly on providing the answers that the Secretary wants to hear. Their August 2015 report is marked with “For Official Use Only,” which means that non governmental observers like me are not supposed to see it. I’ll leave it to the questioning attitudes of Atomic Insights readers to pose guesses about the source of the leaked document. Hint: Look at the URL where it is posted. End Aside.
Though DOE summarizes the Red Team’s conclusions by asserting that it supports their assertion that continuing the MOX program under the currently projected funding profile of ~ $500 million per year is significantly more expensive than the hypothetical costs of the dilute and dispose option, it doesn’t seem to recognize its own responsibility for creating the mess, first by establishing an onerous and complex licensing process.
Partly as a result of that process, the contractors produced an almost unworkably complicated design. The on-off-on-off mission and funding has helped to create a hostile, uncertain work environment that has been abandoned by many of the best workers. According to the Red Team report, the remaining workforce seems to spend more effort in oversight and project controls than in completing constructive tasks.
Contractual enhancements may also enable a reduction of burdensome oversight and indirect costs associated with this kind of counterproductive relationship between DOE and the contractor.
Implementing project management reforms, providing for incentive fees (based upon jointly negotiated performance outcomes) and ultimately reducing the amount of daily oversight and transactional interactions between the DOE field element and the MOX Services contractor could result in meaningful cost savings.
Final thoughts: As currently funded and overseen by DOE, the MOX Project is expensive and is at a high risk of failure. It might be salvageable, but only with a tripling or quadrupling of annual appropriations in the near term along with a major overhaul of the project management structure and environment to get the project completed and operating expeditiously. Small annual funding requests might be easier to get through Congress, but they invariably add cost and stretch project completion.
The Department of Energy helped to establish a situation that would guarantee that the project could not succeed.
The problem for the people who have to determine where to go from here is that the alternative solution being proposed would depend on the same kind of management, requires changes in law that have not yet been submitted, would require the agreement of at least two state governments that have no real incentive to accept the new plan and would require the Russian government to agree, in writing, to a disposal method that they have been opposed to accepting for the past 20 years.
Since the money that is being expended on MOX comes from the defense budget, the Russians have strong incentives to reject a new deal whose primary selling point is a lowered cost for the U.S.
Paraphrasing Senator Graham in his most ironic voice, other than those obstacles the alternative plan seems okay.
There are alternative courses of action that have the potential to provide a better outcome, but I’ll save those for another day.
Thanks very much Rod — good stuff !
It’s interesting to contrast the serious troubles that the MOX project is having with the spectacular success that the BLEU (Blended Low Enriched Uranium) project has enjoyed. Here are two projects that produce nuclear fuel from weapons material, but one goes forward without a hitch, almost unseen and unknown, and the other turns into a quagmire.
Now I realize that dealing with uranium-plutonium fuel is more technically challenging than dealing with fuel that is just uranium, but the French tackled most of the technical challenges of MOX ages ago.
It only makes sense when you consider that the effect of one program was to displace (atrophy?) domestic uranium fuel production for a nontrivial amount of time, while the effect of the other is to set up a new plutonium economy. Hmm …
[Note: Although I have never worked on MOX personally, I do work for the company that is building the MOX facility in South Carolina]
Free the U-238!
Seriously, if this is so hard why can’t we just gift it to teh Rooskies and pay ’em to make it into BN800 fuel? Dross into gold! 🙂
In commercial reactors, Plutonium is produced by U238 + n absorption. U B- decays to Np, which B- decays to Pu. A typical reactor gets 40% of its late core cycle power from Pu fission.
BWRs can exploit this phenomenon by operating at high rod lines early in the core cycle. This lowers the boiling boundary (Z axis), which hardens the neutron flux at upper core elevations. The higher energy spectrum neutron flux enhances Pu production, which is ultimately utilized during late cycle coast down. The reactor will coast down slower, and at the same time, display the increased sensitivity to reactivity addition associated with Pu smaller Delayed Neutron Fraction (B effective). The high rod lines also save recirc pumping power early in life, the net result is substantially more power production from the same initial fuel load. EOC RPT (end of cycle recirc pump trip) actuation is installed for this consideration.
The take away is – we already use Plutonium every day in nuclear power plants. The US government has always opposed civilian use of seperated Plutonium. It has been considered proliferative by definition.
One alternative course of action is to use ThorCon, a molten salt reactor design nearing completion, for first use in Indonesia.
* ThorCon can burn or downgrade the 34 tons of excess weapons grade plutonium in the US inventory, required by our treaty with Russia.
* To do this, ThorCon requires far less fuel preparation than a solid fuel reactor.
* If the nation wills it, ThorCon can begin burning this plutonium in five years.
* The plutonium will produce 2 GW of pollution-free, dispatchable power for 24 years. If this power replaces coal, 300 million tons less CO2 will be spewed into our childrens’ atmosphere.
* The process will also produce 12,000 kg of fissile in the form of 233U, which can be down- blended to commercial reactor fuel. If burned in ThorCon’s, this 233U will produce 19 GW-y of electricity. If this power replaces coal, an additional 120 million tons less CO2 will be discharged into the troposphere.
* The resulting waste, occupying 225 m3 of dry cask storage, will be useless as weapons material, even for a low yield fizzle bomb.
This can be carried out in a virtually unmodified ThorCon power plant. The technology is described here.
We are not pursuing this path, but the government could. We are intent on mass-producing modular power plants delivering electricity cheaper than coal, Powering Up Our World.
Oh dear … not another one of these gee-whiz reactor designs that can be ready to go “in five years.”
I’m afraid that you’ll have to get at the back of the line.
ThorCon is not a new comer. They’ve been in the line now for several years and have some exceptionally talented businessmen/engineers in charge.
And there are a lot of talented people who have been in the game a lot longer who have been promising a spiffy new reactor to solve all our problems that will be ready to go “in five years” for a long time now.
It was a lot easier to swallow these claims back when the economy was humming along, natural gas was still expensive, and there was demand for new power generation. These days, however, …
Brian is of course correct. We have not delivered, nor can anyone
deliver new nuclear technology in the US under the present rules
of the game. These new technologies
cannot be prudently licensed without fullscale, rigorous prototype
testing. But NRC says you cant test without a license, Until
this Catch 22 is addressed, there will be no new nuclear in
the United States.
You’re correct. While I wish it was already done or at least done in time to match your company’s needs, I am moderately optimistic that the message is getting through.
By 2020, I believe that we will have a process for building and rigorously testing full scale prototype nuclear fission power plants — not just reactors, mind you. When the process is in place with the requirements clear, it should be possible to plan and finance such a machine as an integral part of a product development effort. Until that happens, however, the US is destined to fall further and further behind.
The US Navy used such an approach for most of its early, second and third generation plants.
Sooooo, why did we need to build our own MOX plant in the first place? In 2011 it was decided to shut down the Sellafield MOX plant in the UK because of lack of orders from Japan. The MELOX MOX plant in France is still operational and producing MOX for a variety of customers (http://www.areva.com/EN/operations-1206/melox.html). Japan will have their JMOX facility operational at some point in the future too. How many MOX plants does the world need?
I’m sure any of these facilities would have been glad to be paid for the extra MOX production contracts, and it certainly would have cost less than the 5+ billions of $ we’re spending on building the US MOX plant.
Why was this option not considered? Was DOE just afraid to ship WGPu abroad? This would make little sense, since both the UK and France have plenty of their own plutonium stockpiles.
I understand that CANDU reactors were considered and found to be quite capable of “disposing” the MOX. That was before the US decided to build the SRS MOX plant, now cancelled.
More info here:
MOX is a tremendous waste of time and money. Much better to recycle with the IFR and maybe even make some new fuel along the way.
If we only had IFRs to recycle it with….
Well yes. But IFR’s plutonium economy is what this article is about. GE-H sent NRC a 500 page license outline proposal in 2010, and again in 2011. They were essentially told NRC was busy with light water SMRs and not to bother. So GE-H pursued — and obtained — ESBWR design approval instead. See Jack Devanney’s comment above.
UK reprocessed a lot of spent Magnox fuel which is superior plutonium to that found in PWR/BWR. Sadly it looks like they want to make MOX fuel with it too: http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/waste-management/uk-steer-plutonium-processing-projects-year-end
So much rubbish written by UK NDA on this. They are desperate to turn UK plutonium into MOX. It’s all they ever wanted. In the UK GE-Hitachi will have to fight off the whole nuclear establishment NDA, ONR, … It’s terribly sad that NDA have any say at all in what reactors UK should use.
My preferred options for plutonium, keep it
* kickstart the thorium fuel cycle with it
* fire up fast molten salt fast reactors
* fire up PRISM
* CANDU using Pu/Th fuel!
My least preferred options are those suggested by NDA:
What is the charm of MOX? The waste stream has even more long-lived actinides than could ever be dreamt of from LEU. MOX looks like an anti-nuke’s wet dream. What am I missing? What is so good about MOX?
You can use it in reactors that have already been built, that are already operating, and that would require only relatively minor modifications to use the stuff. The alternative is to design, test, license, and build a reactor based on completely different technology. The difference in time scale and risk of the two approaches should be obvious.
Why is this so difficult to understand?
That’s because you’ve done more with and extracted more energy out of the fuel. For a geological repository, plutonium is the long-lived actinide that one worries about the most. By burning some of it via recycling the fuel once or twice, you’ve reduced the problem.
But if you’re worried about the actinides, then build a few specially designed actinide-burning reactors to take care of the problem. It will take only a few of these reactors to dispose of almost all of the actinides from a fleet of LWRs, including some LWRs running on MOX.
That’s the long-term solution, however. In case you haven’t been paying attention, I should point out that the ideas being floated as alternatives to the DOE’s MOX Project amount to finding ways to just bury the plutonium in the ground. For proliferation reasons, these disposal methods will be designed to render the plutonium nonrecoverable.
Simply put, we just don’t have time for dreams and fantasies about the “perfect” solution.
The waste from MOX fuel is more toxic because the neutronics of plutonium-239 in water-moderated reactors are not very good. They are worse than either uranium-233, or uranium-235; which are the other two fissile materials we could use. More than a quarter of the plutonium-239 captures a neutron to become plutonium-240 which has a half-life = 6563 years.
Nor is fuel fabrication particularly cheap. MOX fuel is more expensive to make than LEU, and reactor operators find it less desirable because the spent fuel is problematic with far more actinides in it. Those actinides often have half-lives measured in hundreds or thousands of years. So they are quite radioactive and last a long time too.
If we want to use bred fuel in thermal neutron reactors, we should use thorium to make uranium-233 which is has the best neutronics of all, so makes the least amount of long-lived actinides. Any plutonium we have is best used in fast reactors, or saved until it can be. It’s not as if anyone actually needs or wants MOX.
This article has been very instructive about why the nuclear community in the US can accomplish nothing these days. On one hand, we see yet again the willful failure to follow up on anything to completion. After spending over $4 billion, what does the US government want to do? Chuck it. That’s almost $5 billion flushed down the toilet.
Is it any wonder that I have friends and colleagues who are now retiring — guys that have spent most of their careers working on various DOE projects, dozens of projects — who tell me that they never worked on a DOE project that actually went to completion and accomplished its goal?
This is a result of a collusion between two groups that are the enemy of progress in nuclear technology.
The first group consists of the bean-counters, who have “discovered” that it’s “cheaper” just to build a better trash can. Of course, in this analysis they consider only the cost of disposing of the weapons Pu; they don’t consider the possibility of converting the MOX facility to process reactor-grade Pu, like they do in France, which vastly increases the value of the facility in the long term. (Or maybe they do, and that’s what they secretly don’t want to happen.)
The other group consists of the techno-nerds who are attracted to new, shiny objects worse than any child with severe ADHD. Instead of building anything, they spend all their time whining about stuff and pointing out how their (fill-in-the-blank) design is so much better. These folks are better off spending their careers as college professors, so that they can publish lots of papers on their paper reactors, and after they retire, having built nothing outside of the laboratory, they can pat themselves on the back on how clever their ideas were.
When they start influencing public policy and affecting the decisions of industry, that’s when the problems begin. That’s how we got to where we are now.
Who cares? That can be handled by proper core design.
This is a feature of the process that keeps the nonproliferation folks quiet.
I hate to break it to you, but any new technology is going to be more expensive than the status quo that has been around for more than half a century.
The main actinide that is the limiting factor — that is the greatest challenge — for geological repositories in the long term is plutonium.
You can’t talk about what is “cheaper” or “better” without doing a through economic analysis that considers all options, which is what you have not done. Random talking points don’t cut it.
A proper economic analysis for going forward must include a Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA); otherwise, you’re just talking about fairy tales. I can give you a back-of-the-envelope TRA right here:
The last thermal Th/U reactor in the US was shut down in 1989 — over a quarter of a century ago. It wasn’t considered a success (and it’s now a natural gas plant). That reactor used HEU as its driver fuel, something that is not going to happen again in the US anytime in the foreseeable future. (And if you want to talk about expensive, do you know how much it costs to produce HEU fuel?)
Of all of the technologies we have been discussing, MOX is the only one that is currently deployed on a large, industrial scale. France today gets 17% of its (total) electricity from MOX, and that’s from the stuff that is pulled out of used LWR fuel.
I’m sorry that I have to point out the obvious (again), but this is why MOX has been the preferred short-term path forward. Is it perfect? No. But wise men don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
It renders weapons-grade Pu militarily unusable by adding large amounts of isotopes 240 and 241 to what does not fission, thus meeting arms-reduction treaty obligations.
Reprocessed Pu from LWR fuel isn’t weaponizable, so the only reason to use it as MOX is to get rid of (a large fraction of) it.
MOX is a political requirement not an economic one. Thanks for telling it so succinctly, Engineer-Poet. Your posts are always some of the best.
That is high praise for a lowly BSEE coming from you. Thank you.
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