In this year’s budget request, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) formalizes its plan to breathe new life into the Mixed-Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It has a new purpose for the facility in mind: nuclear weapon plutonium pit production.
For context, the NNSA first proposed constructing the MOX facility to meet its commitment to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium under an international agreement in 2000. By the time they broke ground in August 2007, the total project cost had jumped from the original $1 billion estimate to $4.8 billion. By 2016, the project’s estimated cost had ballooned to more than $17 billion. Since then, the Department of Energy (DOE) in both the Obama and Trump administrations has called for bringing the project to a halt and proceeding with an alternative. After a bitter fight in Congress, DOE started moving ahead with the so-called “Dilute & Dispose” alternative last year, and announced plans to begin shuttering the MOX facility after pouring more than $5 billion into it.
The president’s fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget request indicates NNSA is moving forward with the Dilute & Dispose approach at another location. But rather than fund MOX shut-down and termination activities, as it called for last year, the NNSA is proposing to “repurpose” the facility for, “production of nuclear weapons plutonium pits.” In other words, the agency wants to transition a building meant to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium into one that would produce plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.
The MOX project failed in large part because DOE and NNSA failed to appreciate the cost and complexity of constructing a one-of-a-kind facility equipped to handle radioactive fuels. Building a new facility out of the half-finished remnants of the old one seems doomed to repeat the same mistakes. DOE first announced its decision to transform MOX into a pit production facility in May 2018. DOE has been evaluating options to increase pit production for nuclear warhead programs for a few years, but studies required by the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act determining whether the MOX plan is the best option are still ongoing.
It’s unclear how feasible the MOX transition would be, or what it might ultimately cost, but the proposed objective fits with the administration’s overall splurge on nuclear weapons and the infrastructure to build them. (See this NNSA post.) We’ll have to wait until the full budget comes out to see how much NNSA wants to pour into the new plutonium pit production project. But after wasting $5 billion, the about turn on MOX’s fate suggests pie-in-sky planning rather than a careful consideration of what’s a prudent use of public funds.