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CBRN Assessment

US defence policy bill would allow path to cancel MOX plutonium de-weaponision project

13 November 2017

Congress’ fiscal year 2018 (FY 2018) defence policy bill for the first time appears to allow a path for terminating a multi-billion-dollar project aimed at disposing weapon-grade plutonium.

The US Department of Energy (DoE) in FY 2018 once again requested that Congress terminate the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF), which has suffered significant cost and schedule issues but has been strongly supported by lawmakers.Rods undergo inspection before being filled with MOX pellets and fitted into a nuclear fuel assembly. The fuel would then be burned off in nuclear reactors and rendered unusable for weapons. (Areva, Eric Larrayadieu)Rods undergo inspection before being filled with MOX pellets and fitted into a nuclear fuel assembly. The fuel would then be burned off in nuclear reactors and rendered unusable for weapons. (Areva, Eric Larrayadieu)

There are few easy options to replace the facility. It has survived repeated White House and DoE efforts during the Obama administration to curtail or terminate the programme, and last year even survived Russia’s suspension of the arms control agreement that underpins the project.

However, House and Senate armed services committees have agreed on policy legislation that would allow the secretary of energy to waive a legal requirement for the MFFF to be built at Savannah River. That legislation, publicised on 9 November, must still be voted through Congress and enacted by the president.

The bill would allow the project to be abandoned if the secretary commits to removing plutonium “intended to be disposed of in the MOX facility from South Carolina and ensure a sustainable future for the Savannah River Site”.

The secretary would also have to commit to “an alternative option for carrying out the plutonium disposition programme” that covers the same amount of plutonium but at “approximately half of the estimated remaining lifecycle cost” of the MFFF option.

DoE’s proposed 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.

The WIPP has downsides too. Three Stanford University nuclear security and geology experts raised questions about the long-term safety of the waste facility in a January 2016 report.

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