Legislator Seeks Details on Nuke Plutonium Conversion Plan

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday urged the Obama administration to disclose when and at what cost it expects to complete a project to convert nuclear-weapon plutonium into power reactor fuel.

Obama officials should also estimate how much money the government stands to gain from selling mixed-oxide reactor fuel slated to be generated from excess weapons plutonium, Markey wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The United States and Russia committed in 2000 to each eliminate 34 metric tons of unneeded bomb material.

Markey referred to a September press finding that the department had added $2 billion to an internal cost estimate for building a facility in South Carolina to convert the material. The reported increase would represent a boost of more than 40 percent to the $4.8 billion public price tag of the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.

Markey wants to know "how much will it cost to complete the MOX facility, begin operations, process all surplus plutonium, and finally shut down the program; and what is the timeline for these operations?" according to a press release from his office.

He demanded to know what atomic facilities are expected to purchase the material, as well as how the administration intends to complete MOX sales to the prospective customers.

In addition to posing special safety concerns, "the use of MOX fuel potentially requires some reactor modifications as well as changes in the management of spent fuel waste," Markey wrote. "It is unclear which utilities might be willing to take on the challenge of using this new fuel, and it is undecided whether DOE will subsidize these additional costs."

The Tennessee Valley Authority has indicated it could consider use of the fuel at two facilities, but the federal agency has yet to reach a final decision.

The MOX program "is over budget, riddled with delays and problems and is producing a product that no one wants. And all to produce $2 billion worth of reactor fuel at a cost of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and damage to our global nonproliferation efforts,” Markey said in the release.

The lawmaker referred to the program's proliferation potential and asserted that it "blurs the longstanding distinction between civilian and military uses of nuclear technology."

Mixed-oxide fuel is safer for a would-be thief to handle than used nuclear reactor fuel, and "a straightforward chemical process" can isolate its bomb-usable component, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In the late 1990s, one arms control official warned the project could encourage other nations to pursue weapon-usable plutonium activities.

The Energy Department on Tuesday provided no immediate response to questions on Markey's demands, including whether and when it could supply the requested information.

January 15, 2013
About

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday urged the Obama administration to disclose when and at what cost it expects to complete a project to convert nuclear-weapon plutonium into power reactor fuel.

Countries