How Obama’s administration is undermining the best non proliferation project ever, in the most unfortunate time.
While the Cold War’s winds are blowing again over relations between the U.S. and Russia since after the Crimean crisis and recrudesced with the war over Syria, President Obama seeks to send the wrong message to his Russian counterpart in the very end of his administration, risking to hamper costly efforts on non proliferation of nuclear weapons and casting a shadow on U.S. determination on pursuing global Peace.
Recently issued 2017 Fiscal Year Obama’s proposal solicits to quit the MOX program at Savannah River facility in South Carolina. This facility, under construction since 2007 for an up to date estimated budget of 7.7 billion dollars, was envisaged to be operational this year to start the processing of weapon grade uranium and plutonium to mixed oxide fuel (MOX) to feed nuclear reactor and produce carbon-free electricity. The facility is part of two bilateral agreements the U.S. contracted with Russia regarding non proliferation of nuclear weapons: Megaton to Megawatts (1993) [see previous post on the topic] and Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (2000).
Under the former, 15000 weapons have already been destroyed, while the latter calls for U.S. and Russia to destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium each – something as 8500 warhead each.
There is no technical reason to quit the project, that despite increasing funding cuts through the years is now 70% complete and the plant already hosts most of the sophisticated equipment that will be need to the processing. The last budget destined by the Congress to the plant were 380 million dollars last December, than the presidential decision to ax the funds for 2017 and destine the U.S. military grade plutonium surplus to waste disposal in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The MOX plant at Savannah River is one of many federal budget programs risking interruption due to opposite parties vetoes and lack of political compromise. Republican Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina said the MOX is a vital program that has been continuously undermined by Obama’s administration who spread misinformation about its state of progress.
On another note, Russia already completed its own MOX plant and it is ready to feed with it fast neutrons reactors (for example the BN-800 connected to the grid just last year). In our opinion the U.S. simply can not afford to interrupt, or – even worse – to scrap such an important project. Or should we recognize that the President prefers watching dazed a Russia which makes great strides towards the future of nuclear recycling?
Neither South Carolina General Attorney, Alan Wilson, took the news well, saying that the Federal Government will owe 1 million dollars daily to the State, effective January 1st, 2016, if plutonium stocked at Savannah River is neither processed nor disposed.
Europe developed a large capacity of feeding nuclear reactors with MOX: currently over 35 European reactor are licensed to use MOX as fuel, and 22 French reactors can use MOX up to 30% of fuel blend. In a conservative hypothesis, burning a 30% of MOX in one third of the world’s reactor would remove about 15 tons of warhead plutonium per year, that means 3000 warheads per year burnt to produce 110 billion kWh of electricity.
Now it is really difficult to understand the rationale behind a decision that in hindsight seems not unlike that of people used to sweep under the rug. With the aggravating circumstance that in this case the “powder” also has an extremely interesting economic and energetic value. In fact there is no doubt that immobilize and store the plutonium through vitrification and deep geologic burial adds significant political complexity and physical challenges.
President Barack Obama, who, in 2009, was credited a Nobel Prize for Peace, is now freezing his only possible success regarding non proliferation efforts. Whatever could be the reason – like funding the costly Obamacare and other environmental projects possibly more close to the anti-nuclear lobby – he’s sending a two-fold dangerous message in a time of increased tension in the bilateral relations with Russia and announced efforts to reduce U.S. carbon footprint on the planet.
We hope this decision would not come to be effective and the next U.S. Governments – as the rest of the World – will keep betting on nuclear fuel recycle. Namely using the existing stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, but also implementing Partitioning and Transmutation technology (P&T). This is the only highway we currently have to reduce both volume and radiotoxic level of nuclear waste, in order not to put those economical and environmental costs on the shoulders of the future generations. And, at the same time, to send the message that a World without nukes – or at least with less nukes – is actually possible.