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Program to turn plutonium bombs into fuel hits snags
McClatchy Newspapers


March 08, 2006

WASHINGTON - As President Bush seeks to ensure that other countries wanting to use nuclear energy do so without creating weapons-grade material, the United States' plan to reduce its own stock of bomb-quality plutonium is behind schedule and has more than tripled in cost.

The program, referred to as MOX for the mixed oxide blend that would be converted into energy, has been slowed for a host of reasons, including partner Russia's unwillingness to agree to U.S. terms on liability as well as delays and cost overruns in the design phase of the plant at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County, S.C.

There is likely to be a several-year gap between the end the ongoing and first-ever test of MOX at Duke Energy's Catawba nuclear plant at Lake Wylie, S.C., and the time the utility can count on using the mixture for 40 percent of its electricity output, because the United States won't be producing the mixture for nearly a decade.




"My optimism has been in a steady state of decline," said William Hoehn, Washington office director for RANSAC, an independent organization that promotes a threat reduction agenda between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The United States and Russia settled on the non-proliferation program in 2000, agreeing to simultaneously reduce the amount of plutonium they have from dismantled bombs by 34 metric tons each.

They would do so by blending the plutonium with uranium that commercial nuclear power plants use to generate electricity. MOX blends have been used for decades in countries such as France, but never before using weapons-grade plutonium.

To ensure that the mixture would work safely and effectively, the United States asked a company in France to create a blend with U.S. weapons plutonium. The Catawba nuclear facility began testing it in June, and it is working as predicted, said Rita Sipe, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C.

Of the 193 "lead assemblies" in the Catawba reactor, only four are using MOX. The test is scheduled to run a normal fuel cycle of three to four years. Afterward, Duke had hoped to gradually add more MOX until about 40 percent of its assemblies contained the uranium and plutonium mix scheduled to be fabricated at the Savannah River Site.

But Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told lawmakers last month that the planned fuel manufacturing facility in Aiken County, a 310-square-mile site near the Georgia border, isn't likely to begin producing MOX before 2015.

Bodman's letter to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his department would "continue to explore ways to accelerate its schedule for this important mission."

Construction on the Savannah plant had been scheduled to begin this May, but the National Nuclear Security Administration wouldn't verify the timing last week, saying only that it would begin "in 2006."

U.S. officials blame the delay primarily on Russians' reluctance to take on any liability associated with their MOX plant that the Americans plan to help them build and finance.

"We have had two years delay on that while we have argued over the terms of liability and we finally have resolved that matter last summer," Bodman told a Senate committee last month. "I do not have a signed piece of paper that says the Russians have signed off on this, but I'm hopeful."

"Until we get that done, I'm a little bit of a doubting Thomas on it," Bodman added. "So we continue to work with them."

Former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he thinks the MOX program will continue to progress with "diplomacy" with the Russians.

"It's certainly a very important priority for the non-proliferation objectives of both the United States and Russian republic," Abraham said in a phone interview.

"The notion of having large quantities of weapons-grade-level plutonium is obviously not desirable to either side," said Abraham, who last week signed on as chairman of the board of Areva Inc., which fabricated the MOX in France that is being used at Catawba.

The Russian delay is only a small part of the problem with the MOX program, according to a scathing audit by the Department of Energy's inspector general released in December. The report indicates the MOX program has been plagued with huge cost overruns, mismanagement and lack of oversight.

The original budget estimate in 2002 was for $1 billion. Less than four years later, the cost has climbed to $3.5 billion, and the plant won't be producing MOX until 2015, six years after initially anticipated.

"As of July 2005, NNSA had spent $453 million - nearly half of the $1 billion design and construction budget, on just design activities, and had only completed 70 percent of the design work," the audit said.

"We found that weaknesses in project management and limited administration of the contract contributed to the cost growth," it added.

Bodman told lawmakers the cost increase was due in part to a "huge run-up in steel and concrete" prices.

"That's not the totality but in significant measure the reason for the up-tick in costs," he said. "Each time we delay one of these big projects, it's a billion-dollar decision."

Bodman said that by year's end, he'd submit a revised cost and schedule update to Congress.

In the meantime, the Savannah River Site, already a steward of the nation's nuclear stockpile, has been collecting more of the nation's plutonium reserves.

One of the community's biggest concerns had been that the plutonium would get shipped to South Carolina but never be disposed of as planned.

Aiken County has filed a lawsuit to stop the Department of Energy from shipping more plutonium to the site, which was built in the 1950s to create materials needed to make bombs.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as a House member co-authored a measure that would force the federal government to pay penalties to the state for having to store the plutonium longer than expected. But when the Russian liability delays surfaced, he agreed to give the department an additional three years to process the fuel before it has to pay the state $1 million a day until it removes the plutonium it transferred to Savannah.

The new effective date for the fines is Jan. 1, 2014, at least a year before Bodman says the planned plant will produce fuel.

Hoehn, of RANSAC, said he was surprised by the deadline being moved because it was "the one stick to wield against" the federal government that the state had.

"It's important to have the accountability mechanism," he said.

The delay will also mean a slower startup of fuel MOX usage by Catawba, which will have to revert back to 100 percent uranium after the test is complete while it awaits MOX production from Savannah, said Julianne Smith, a spokeswoman for the nuclear security administration.

The developments come at a time when nuclear energy has begun to emerge as a more viable energy option in Washington as well as abroad due to growing concern that the world is too reliant on oil from unstable nations as well as heightened concern about environmental emissions from coal and oil.

President Bush last week was in India settling a deal that would allow that country, which has nuclear weapons technology, to buy nuclear fuel and commercial nuclear technology in return for international inspections of its civilian reactors.

Bush also recently announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which he envisions as a plan for the United States to essentially lease nuclear energy to countries that need it for power, and then retrieve the spent fuel so there would be less risk that it be turned into weaponry.

Though nuclear fuel is emissions free, serious questions remain about its long-term disposal at Nevada's Yucca Mountain or any other repository.


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