Bush Administration confirms choice of MOX to recycle surplus defense plutonium
January 30, 2002
The U.S. government has just revised its program to implement international nuclear disarmament agreements for the disposition of surplus defense plutonium.
Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, speaking for the Bush Administration, announced the U.S. decision to recycle all surpluses in the form of MOX, a fuel made with a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides. Once the plutonium is converted into fuel, it will be "burned" in civilian nuclear reactors owned by electric utility Duke Power.
The previous Administration had opted for a two-fold program to eliminate the 34 metric tons of surplus defense plutonium(1) : immobilization of 9 metric tons of plutonium through vitrification at a cost of two billion dollars, and recycling of 25 metric tons of plutonium into MOX at a cost of two billion dollars. Both options included the dismantling of "pits", or nuclear warheads, and conversion of their metal plutonium into oxide at a cost of around two billion dollars.
Following a Department of Energy reappraisal of existing technical solutions, the Bush Administration deemed that the recycling solution alone would achieve its objectives from an economic and non-proliferation standpoint:
more than two billion dollars would be saved by abandoning immobilization, and the use of MOX in civilian reactors meets established non-proliferation criteria.
For COGEMA, the U.S. decision strengthens the contract awarded by the Department of Energy in March 1999 to the Duke-COGEMA-Stone & Webster (DCS) team to design a MOX fabrication plant using French technology from the MELOX plant. The initial contract, valued at 130 million dollars, will be followed by plant construction at an estimated cost of 1.2 billion dollars. Construction is scheduled to start in 2004 at the Savannah River site, with start-up planned for 2007.
More generally, the U.S. decision confirms that the use of plutonium as reactor fuel, as many European countries, including France, have done for many years(2), is the best way to manage the plutonium inventory. In so doing, the nuclear industry is making a useful contribution to disarmament and non-proliferation.
(1) In line with the START I and START II treaties on nuclear disarmament, the United States and Russia signed a political accord in September 2000 on bilateral reductions of 34 metric tons of surplus defense plutonium.
(2) The Secretary of Energy explicitly referred to the European industry in his statement