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CBRN Assessment

DoE requests to terminate MOX nuclear disposition programme, again

25 May 2017

The US Department of Energy (DoE) has once again requested that Congress terminate a multi-billion-dollar project aimed at disposing weapon-grade plutonium, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF).

A MOX nuclear fuel assembly is shown here, held by a crane during the manufacturing process. (Areva, Eric Larrayadieu)A MOX nuclear fuel assembly is shown here, held by a crane during the manufacturing process. (Areva, Eric Larrayadieu)

The MFFF has strong backing among South Carolina's congressional delegation and has survived repeated DoE efforts to curtail or terminate the programme, and last year even survived Russia's suspension of the arms control agreement that underpins the project.

In its fiscal year 2018 (FY 2018) budget request, the DoE - just as it did last year under different leadership - asked for USD270 million "to terminate the Mixed Oxide [MOX] Fuel Fabrication Facility with an orderly and safe closure of the facility". Instead, it also again asked for funding, USD9 million this year, to pursue a so-called 'dilute and dispose' method as an alternative for plutonium disposition.

The alternative dilute and dispose option would send the surplus US weapon-grade plutonium to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) geologic repository in New Mexico.

Nearly USD5 billion has been spent on the MFFF so far, and supporters' and detractors' estimates to complete and then operate the facility vary widely, from USD15 billion to USD30 billion or more.

The facility is the United States chosen means of disposing the material under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA) non-proliferation deal between the United States and Russia, signed in 2000 and updated in 2010. Russia, however, backed out of the PMDA in October 2016.

Each party was to de-weaponise at least 34 tonnes of excess weapon-grade plutonium, about enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons, by converting it to MOX and then using it in nuclear reactors.

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