If you want to reduce government spending, you have to know where the money goes and why. I’m not an economist, but I am a nuke watcher. I’m on the board of Nuclear Watch South and linked with other nuclear watch groups around the country.
In a recent letter to the Times, a reader said the media needs to “... focus on what is really happening and who is doing it.” OK, here’s the story of a very expensive nuclear project called MOX, which stands for mixed oxide nuclear fuel. The idea is to take part of the nation’s excess plutonium, about 50 tons, mix it with uranium, and use it as fuel in nuclear reactors.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy contracted with Warren Buffet’s Shaw Industry to build a MOX plutonium fuel facility at the Savannah River Site. The SRS lies just across Georgia’s border with South Carolina. This made the state of Georgia happy because it meant jobs. Environmentalists were not so happy because it meant radioactive pollution. The project moved ahead.
MOX has proved to be a disaster. The facility is now at least 10 years behind schedule and many times over budget. The U.S. Office of Budget Management wants to cut its funding by 75 percent. If the MOX project is that much of a failure, why not cancel it outright? Because the unfinished building still needs a roof. Finishing the roof means jobs and the possibility of restarting the project in the future.
Why produce MOX plutonium fuel in the first place? Because this particular 50 tons of plutonium is not ordinary nuclear waste. It was produced in DOE reactors specifically for nuclear bombs. The goal of MOX is not really plutonium fuel so much as making the plutonium highly radioactive so that it can’t be used for nuclear bombs. The goal is worthy. The execution is not.
Yucca Mountain, was supposed to store high-level waste safely underground, but after years in construction and billions of dollars spent, the repository in Nevada couldn’t be licensed, was never finished and now has been officially closed. Money gone. Nothing but a hole in the ground to show for it. But for a while, it did create jobs for some and big bucks for others.
The MOX program is another wrong answer to a nuclear problem. There is another way to neutralize this 50 tons of plutonium so that it is less vulnerable to theft and sabotage. It could be glassified. This is a process that encases the plutonium in glass surrounded by very dangerous high-level waste, hard to steal and harder to extract the weapons-grade material. But this is not the course that was taken.
The choice of Yucca Mountain for a nuclear waste storage site was more political than scientific. The site leaked and was simply unsuitable for long-term containment. There’s a real question if any site would have been suitable. The idea of transforming plutonium in nuclear fuel was also political and poorly thought out. It isn’t a recycle project because the MOX fuel can only be used once, and it still produces high-level waste.
Moreover, there is no market for MOX fuel. None of the reactors in the U.S. use it. Japan did use a form of MOX it got from the Sellafield Plant in England, but after the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese closed down their reactors. Now the Sellafield Plant is also closed. What’s left is another contaminated nuclear site.
If you want to know what is happening and who is doing it, you have to look at what motivates a given project and who benefits from it. Our nuclear problems are motivated by two universal drives: money and power. Easy to say; hard to fix. All we can do is keep the process transparent and under constant scrutiny.
For more information, look up Nuclear Watch South on the Web.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.