Late on a Friday afternoon (September 23), the Department of Energy released an updated performance report on the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF). DOE’s internal Office of Project Management Oversight and Assessment in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers produced the report using assumptions and data provided by DOE leadership.
The report concludes that if the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — the semi-independent branch of the DOE that is running the project — continues managing and supporting the MFFF with the same enthusiasm and oversight that it has been investing for the past half dozen years, the facility won’t be completed until 2048. It will cost $12.5 billion more than has already been spent.
In addition to being able to point to one more in a lengthy series of reports documenting historic cost expansion, predicting excessive future cost and proposing an excruciatingly slow delivery schedule, MFFF opponents claim that there is no demand for the fuel assemblies that the facility will eventually produce. They also claim there is a cheaper, quicker and easier alternative.
Disinterested observers with any fiscal conservatism should immediately conclude that the best course of action would be to halt construction now and pursue the suggested alternative. That’s the reaction that the report sponsors appear to be seeking.
Observers with more historical perspective will recognize that the 2016 MFFF performance update is just the latest document in a thick stack of words and paper produced in the decades-long passive-aggressive political battle to prevent using plutonium for peace.
That assessment can be confirmed by reviewing the project history, including the culpability of DOE and NNSA project management and oversight along with understanding how the provided assumptions drive the report’s conclusions.
Roots Of U. S. Plutonium Prohibition Policies
Plutonium is a naturally-occurring product of supernova explosions that is so rare that it was long considered to be man-made. The truth is that there just aren’t any Pu isotopes with a long enough half life to still be detectable in a solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.
Pu was first isolated by a University of California-Berkeley team led by Glenn Seaborg and named for the then-planet of Pluto. The choice was a logical completion of a series of elements named for the three outermost planets of our solar system Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Though its first use was in explosives, scientists and engineers have always recognized that plutonium has vast potential as a fuel source. Like U-235, the only naturally fissile isotope, Pu-239 and Pu-241 can be readily split to release about 1-2 million times as much energy as burning similar mass of petroleum. Plutonium’s real attraction to specialists is the fact that it can be readily produced from U-238, which is a mostly useless isotope that represents 99.3% of naturally occurring uranium.
By designing reactors that create and use plutonium, it’s theoretically possible to multiply the available uranium fuel resource by as much 140 times. That prospect has excited thousands of scientists and engineers and stimulated worldwide interest in breeder reactor programs from the earliest days of controlled nuclear energy.
Even without breeding, plutonium is a useful fuel source; 25-40% of the energy produced during the reactor residence time of conventional nuclear fuel comes from plutonium fission. As soon as a fresh nuclear fuel rod begins fissioning, some of the U-238 that makes up about 95% of the fuel element begins absorbing neutrons and turning into plutonium to fission upon the next neutron absorption.
Way back in the early 1970s, special interest organizations and individuals began working diligently to discourage what Glenn Seaborg’s Atomic Energy Commission had described as the “plutonium economy.” By the mid-1970s, the effort to demonize plutonium and prevent breeder reactor commercialization gained enough momentum to become a campaign issue for the 1976 Presidential race.
As a result of the political pressure applied by his nearly unknown rival, President Ford placed a temporary moratorium on nuclear fuel recycling in October 1976. After President Carter’s inauguration, he made the prohibition as permanent as possible through the issuance of an executive order. The U.S. stopped pursuing purposeful plutonium use until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Aside: I’m convinced that fear of the plutonium economy was created and stoked by people who really liked the way the hydrocarbon economy was working for them. End Aside.
Weapons Material Disposition
During the 1990s, the U. S. and the former Soviet Union took several steps towards reducing dependence on nuclear weapons. As warheads were dismantled, the purified materials (U-235 and Pu-239) used to create them became surplus and in need of permanent disposition. Both U-235 and Pu-239 need to be treated to enable disposition; without altering the material, it is possible to reconfigure it into a deliverable warhead.
The highly enriched uranium (HEU) used for a portion of the arsenals was easiest to alter. Blending the purified material with natural or depleted uranium resulted in a material that was chemically and physically identical to the low-enriched uranium (LEU) used by commercial reactors.
The blending and consuming process took 20 years. From 1993-2013 the Megatons to Megawatts program turned 500 metric tons of Russian HEU (enough for 20,000 warheads) into 14,000 tons of LEU. That LEU provided about 50% of the U.S. supply of nuclear fuel at a time when nuclear power produced 20% of the nation’s electricity.
Few Americans know that 10% of the electricity consumed in the United States between 1994 and 2014 came from fissioning material that had once been part of the Russian nuclear weapons inventory.
About the same time that the US and Russia agreed to dispose of HEU, they also began discussions for an agreement that would permanently eliminate part of their plutonium inventories. The discussions began in the late 1990s and have produced several versions of an agreement.
The Russians have taken a simple, valuable and relatively inexpensive path for converting their plutonium into a form that cannot be used in warheads. For the reported equivalent of a few hundred million dollars, they built a facility that manufactures the surplus weapons material into fuel for their fast reactor program.
Political prohibition and a successful plutonium demonization campaign has made it much more politically difficult and expensive for the US to eliminate its surplus weapons-grade plutonium. So far, no plutonium has been permanently eliminated in the U.S.
Passive Resistance To Beneficial Use Has Been Successful
The first version of the US plan included a two-track approach. In one track, part of the Pu-239 would be mixed with enough radioactive fission products to approach what was called a “spent fuel standard” that could then be immobilized in a glass or other inert material matrix. The second track was a Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility modeled after the long-established French system.
There were numerous technical challenges associated with the concept of direct disposal using a “spent fuel standard” that were never addressed or solved. It was promoted by some as a less complicated way to eliminate a nuisance, but the underlying motivation was clearly a desire to avoid producing energy with a declared waste product.
The MOX path was almost immediately made as complicated as possible by involving both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy in the review, approval and regulatory role for the project. As Commissioner Nils Diaz commented in 1998 during agency discussions about the proposed regulatory structure,
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 or the NRC, and that is a mix — DOE and NRC.
Eventually, the “spent fuel standard” path was eliminated, leaving just the MOX path. As Diaz expected, the review and licensing process was complex and cumbersome. It wasn’t completed until late 2005 and even that was after splitting the process into a two-step construct of beginning with a construction permit that would eventually be followed with an operating license. Finally, in 2007, the DOE began building the MFFF even though there were a number of design details that were not yet complete.
At least as early as the first half of 2011, there have been serious enough reservations about the progress of the MFFF construction project to raise calls for cancellation.
By 2013, the DOE budget submitters had begun proposing that the project be placed in cold standby while options were evaluated. While it was once funded at $500 million per year, the budget requests for the past four years have been in the range of $250 – $350 million, which is just a bit more than the continuing overhead for the project.
With continuing funding uncertainty and a declining project reputation made worse by proclamations from the project sponsor, it has been difficult for the MFFF contractors to attract and retain the talented management and inspired workers needed to complete a challenging, one-of-a-kind project in a relatively remote part of the country.
Despite all of the hurdles erected, the project has moved forward, but at a pace that does not satisfy anyone.
There is no happy resolution for this mess.
The dilute and dispose alternative using the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) does not exist; there are numerous barriers that have not begun to be addressed. These include, but are not limited to 1) lack of agreement with Russia 2) lack of authorization to use WIPP for diluted weapons material 3) lack of authorized WIPP capacity 4) lack of facilities to perform the dilution 5) lack of isotopic changes to prevent the material from being recovered for weapons use.
It is possible that continued efforts to complete the MFFF as currently designed and approved would be a mistake, but there is no doubt that starting a different process at this point is fraught with unknown challenges and is farther from completion.
Though the contractor companies working on the project are not perfect, the blame for the project’s current status should be placed with the responsible agency and its purposeful lack of commitment to mission accomplishment. There should be accountability for the fruitless expenditures of taxpayer money and the wasteful misuse of valuable government assets.
Though it’s really challenging in a complex executive agency to assign accountability for a failure to follow congressional directives, in this case I would begin by questioning Kevin Knobloch, the DOE Chief of Staff, a man who was the Executive Director of the avowedly anti-plutonium Union of Concerned Scientists before being selected for his current government position.
Sadly, the Administration’s dithering on a path for permanently — by altering the isotopic mix — eliminating 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium from the U.S. weapons program inventory has succeeded in making our relations with Russia even worse than they already were. Vladimir Putin recently announced that Russia would be withdrawing from the plutonium Disposition Management Agreement due to the U.S.’s failure to make any progress.
Unfortunately, it is far easier to create havoc and increase costs for a federal program than it is to either complete it or kill it.
Note: A version of the above was first published at Forbes.com at Passive-Aggressive Fight Against Plutonium Economy Continues Unabated. It is republished with permission.