The Trump administration will abandon a nuclear energy project that was supposed to satisfy de-nuclearization treaty obligations with Russia and will instead bury diluted nuclear weapons underground.
Energy experts have long pointed to bureaucratic inefficiencies holding back nuclear energy projects, but the now-abandoned Mixed Oxide, or MOX, project illustrates just how expensive building these facilities has become.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry wrote to Congress in early May, detailing the administration’s plan to abandon the project. Perry wants to blend weapons-grade plutonium with inert substances and then bury them underground in New Mexico, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.
The federal government has already spent about $7.6 billion on the MOX project at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, but Perry said completing the facility meant to convert nuclear weapons into fuel would cost another $48 billion.
In total, MOX is projected to cost nearly $56 billion and is still decades away from completion. Federal officials initially expected MOX to cost less than $5 billion and begin operations this year.
The MOX project’s cost becomes even more staggering when compared to the cost of Russia’s own MOX facility, the Mining and Chemical Combine in Zheleznogorsk, which began processing plutonium in 2014. Construction took about two-and-a-half years.
Russia’s MOX plant reportedly cost 9.6 billion rubles, or about $200 million, meaning the U.S. MOX facility was estimated to cost 278 times more to complete. The U.S. already spent 38 times more than Russia for its uncompleted MOX plant.
Comparing cost figures poses the question, why is it so expensive to dd nuclear in the U.S.?
“The now cancelled MOX fuel plant is another in a long line of a nuclear building failures for the Department of Energy,” Jeff Terry, a nuclear physicist at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Nuclear power plant operators have faced heavy regulations for decades, especially in the wake of the Three-Mile Island in the late 1970s. The September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the 2011 Fukushima plant meltdown only added to the industry’s regulatory burden.
In the case of MOX, the Energy Department’s insistence on zero safety incidents forced money to flow from building the project into preventative measures with no cost-benefit considerations, Terry said.
“It is hard to construct something on time and on budget when the design is subject to change based upon a zero risk standard that in practice is not achievable,” Terry said.
“Given the difficulties that the DOE has in completing these projects, it would be wise to at least start a discussion about taking these projects away from the DOE and putting the design, procurement, and construction of the large nuclear facilities into the hands of the US Army Corps of Engineers,” Terry said. “It is not in the long term interests of the United States to cede nuclear technology to communist countries.”
“The US needs to demonstrate that we can still build nuclear facilities,” Terry said.
South Carolina lawmakers opposed mothballing the MOX plant. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said the project was 70 percent complete and would employ hundreds of people.
“With DOE’s decision today, the MOX program – which is one of the most important non-proliferation programs in the history of the world – is being abandoned without any clear path forward,” South Carolina lawmakers said in a joint statement issued May 10.
However, legislation passed in February gave the Energy Department the ability to sidestep MOX if they could show burying it was half the cost of turning it into civilian fuel. Perry’s letter to Congress said buying at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant would cost nearly $20 billion.
“We are currently processing plutonium in South Carolina for shipment (to WIPP),” reads Perry’s letter, according to Reuters.
Perry’s plan mirrors the Obama administration’s plan to stop funding MOX, and instead dilute nuclear weapons with inert substances, then have them buried underground. Still, the plan would cost 99.5 times more than Russia spent on their MOX plant.
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