Obama Budget Plan Puts Controversial Plutonium-Conversion Facility on Hold

Construction of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is seen in this 2010 aerial photograph. The Obama administration is proposing to put completion of the facility on hold as part of its fiscal 2015 budget plan.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
March 4, 2014, 10:07 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is pla­cing con­tro­ver­sial plans to com­plete con­struc­tion on a South Car­o­lina fa­cil­ity that would con­vert nuc­le­ar weapon-us­able plutoni­um in­to re­act­or fuel on hold as part of the fisc­al 2015 budget plan it rolled out on Tues­day.

The fa­cil­ity, which is par­tially built, would con­vert plutoni­um in­to mixed-ox­ide fuel.

“A re­view of this ap­proach has de­term­ined that the MOX fuel ap­proach is sig­ni­fic­antly more ex­pens­ive than planned and it is not vi­able with­in the FY 2015 fund­ing levels,” said a sum­mary of the En­ergy De­part­ment budget pro­pos­al, re­leased by the White House.

“The De­part­ment of En­ergy is de­vel­op­ing al­tern­at­ive ap­proaches to plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion and will en­gage with stake­hold­er to de­term­ine a vi­able al­tern­at­ive,” the state­ment con­tin­ued. “As a res­ult, the MOX pro­ject will be placed in cold standby while an al­tern­at­ive ap­proach is de­term­ined.”

The an­nounce­ment comes on the heels of a Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion li­cens­ing board de­cision to up­hold se­cur­ity plans for the con­tro­ver­sial fa­cil­ity. It also fol­lows new re­ports last month on the pro­ject’s es­cal­at­ing costs.

Watch­dog groups are already prais­ing the an­nounce­ment.

“Con­vert­ing this plutoni­um to a form that would be harder to steal or re­use in nuc­le­ar weapons is an es­sen­tial long-term goal,” Ed­win Ly­man, a seni­or sci­ent­ist with the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists’ glob­al se­cur­ity pro­gram, said in a Tues­day state­ment. “But the MOX strategy would have greatly in­creased near-term risks by mak­ing it easi­er for ter­ror­ists to steal plutoni­um dur­ing pro­cessing trans­port or stor­age at re­act­ors.”

Act­iv­ists have ar­gued that so­lid­i­fy­ing the plutoni­um in a glass-like form could be cheap­er and less vul­ner­able to theft.

The plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion ef­fort is part of the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s broad­er non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­gram. In total, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is pro­pos­ing that the semi­autonom­ous En­ergy De­part­ment agency spend $1.6 bil­lion on non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts in fisc­al 2015. This would be a 20 per­cent drop from the $1.9 bil­lon Con­gress ap­proved for fisc­al 2014, which in turn was a $289 mil­lion cut from fisc­al 2013 levels.

With­in the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion budget, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is pro­pos­ing a 24 per­cent cut to the Glob­al Threat Re­duc­tion Ini­ti­at­ive, which aims to se­cure vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als around the world.

“The re­duc­tion in FY 2015 fund­ing re­flects the ex­pec­ted com­ple­tion of a ma­jor mile­stone in early FY 2015 of the de­vel­op­ment of a new do­mest­ic, non-[highly en­riched urani­um]-based sup­ply of the crit­ic­al med­ic­al iso­tope mo­lyb­denum-99 “¦ which is be­ing ex­ecuted un­der mul­ti­year con­tracts fun­ded in pre­vi­ous fisc­al years,” ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is also pro­pos­ing a 24 per­cent cut to its In­ter­na­tion­al Ma­ter­i­al Pro­tec­tion and Co­oper­a­tion pro­gram, which works to se­cure and elim­in­ate vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar weapons and ma­ter­i­als. It at­trib­utes this in part to the ex­pir­a­tion of the long­stand­ing Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion um­brella agree­ment with Rus­sia last year.

At the same time, it is re­com­mend­ing $8.3 bil­lion for the agency’s nuc­le­ar weapons pro­grams, which is $533 mil­lion — or 6.9 per­cent — more than Con­gress ap­proved for fisc­al 2014. Among the items con­trib­ut­ing to the in­crease is a re­ques­ted boost to funds for the con­tro­ver­sial re­fur­bish­ment of the B-61 grav­ity bomb, ac­cord­ing to the sum­mary.

The news about the MOX pro­gram comes as the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion li­cens­ing board has re­jec­ted act­iv­ists’ claims that plans for the fa­cil­ity do not in­clude ad­equate se­cur­ity meas­ures.

Shaw AREVA MOX Ser­vices — the fed­er­al con­tract­or that is build­ing the fa­cil­ity in ques­tion — praised the NRC pan­el’s rul­ing. Watch­dog groups, mean­while, are crit­ic­al of the de­cision, ar­guing it could set a bad pre­ced­ent re­gard­ing how sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als are handled gen­er­ally.

The tim­ing makes the de­bate yet more polit­ic­ally rel­ev­ant, com­ing less than a month be­fore an in­ter­na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit takes place in the Neth­er­lands.

The groups — in­clud­ing the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, Nuc­le­ar Watch South and the Blue Ridge En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense League — ar­gued in their un­suc­cess­ful leg­al chal­lenge that the con­tract­or’s plan re­lied too much on com­puters — and not enough on hu­mans — to veri­fy that the weapons-grade plutoni­um was ac­coun­ted for and se­cure. They claimed the ap­proach could make the fa­cil­ity vul­ner­able to theft and cy­ber-at­tack.

The NRC Atom­ic Safety and Li­cens­ing Board ruled last week that the con­tract­or’s plan was in com­pli­ance with the com­mis­sion’s reg­u­la­tions, however. The com­mis­sion has yet to re­lease the rul­ing, as its Of­fice of Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity and In­cid­ent Re­sponse is re­view­ing the doc­u­ment to de­term­ine wheth­er any “se­cur­ity—re­lated in­form­a­tion “¦ must be with­held,” ac­cord­ing to a Feb. 27 an­nounce­ment.

Shaw AREVA MOX Ser­vices voiced its sup­port for the rul­ing in a March 3 state­ment.

“We are very pleased with the li­cens­ing board’s de­cision, which up­holds the con­clu­sion that the MOX fa­cil­ity meets the NRC’s reg­u­la­tions for nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al con­trol and ac­count­ing,” said Kelly Trice, the com­pany’s pres­id­ent. “Safety and se­cur­ity are top pri­or­it­ies in the design, con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tion of the MOX fa­cil­ity.”

The com­pany noted that NRC tech­nic­al staff had con­cluded pre­vi­ously that its plan would not pose an un­due risk to work­er safety and health in a 2010 re­port. The five-mem­ber, pres­id­en­tially-ap­poin­ted com­mis­sion it­self has yet to make a fi­nal de­cision on li­cens­ing the MOX fa­cil­ity.

Ly­man, the UCS seni­or sci­ent­ist, said he re­mained con­vinced that the com­pany’s plan “is deeply de­fi­cient and [that the firm] is simply in­cap­able of se­cur­ity and ac­count­ing for this in­cred­ibly dan­ger­ous ma­ter­i­al.

“The ini­tial de­cision to grant this fa­cil­ity an op­er­at­ing li­cense, al­low­ing it to take pos­ses­sion of at least 34 tons of U.S. sur­plus plutoni­um, is reck­less and will in­crease the risk that ter­ror­ists will be able to ac­quire enough plutoni­um to build a nuc­le­ar bomb without de­tec­tion,” Ly­man said in a Feb. 27 state­ment.

Ly­man told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire this week that he feared the li­cens­ing board’s de­cision sets a bad pre­ced­ent head­ing in­to the up­com­ing Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit.

“I fear this will send the wrong sig­nal to oth­er coun­tries that op­er­ate or plan to build bulk hand­ling fa­cil­it­ies for spe­cial nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al, like France, Ja­pan, the U.K., In­dia, China, and most not­ably, Rus­sia — which is sup­posed to be de­vel­op­ing a plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion pro­gram in par­al­lel,” he said.

Ly­man was re­fer­ring to the agree­ment between the United States and Rus­sia to dis­pose of sur­plus weapons grade ma­ter­i­al from the Cold War. The United States op­ted to up­hold its end of the bar­gain by build­ing the MOX fa­cil­ity, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion may now be con­sid­er­ing oth­er op­tions, due to the En­ergy De­part­ment pro­gram’s rising costs.

Among the as­pects of the MOX the se­cur­ity plan that worry Ly­man are “claims that com­puter pro­grams used to track the plant’s in­vent­ory for or­din­ary busi­ness pur­poses can do double-duty to ac­cur­ately ac­count for plutoni­um items for na­tion­al se­cur­ity pur­poses, elim­in­at­ing the need for people to phys­ic­ally ac­cess and in­spect the item,” Ly­man said in Feb. 28 state­ment re­leased by Nuc­le­ar Watch South.

“Giv­en the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of com­puter sys­tems to ma­nip­u­la­tion by ad­versar­ies, this data can be cor­rup­ted,” Ly­man said. “There is no sub­sti­tute for dir­ect phys­ic­al checks.”

Shaw AREVA dis­puted Ly­man’s claims in a leg­al brief last year. While act­iv­ists “fre­quently refer to the [com­puter] sys­tems as ‘sub­sti­tute[s]’ or a second best choice for what they refer to as ‘phys­ic­al re­triev­al and in­spec­tion,’” they “have not ar­tic­u­lated pre­cisely what they mean by ‘phys­ic­al re­triev­al and in­spec­tion’” dur­ing closed-door hear­ings, the May 3, 2013, brief said.

The act­iv­ists’ “sug­ges­tion that [the com­pany’s] pro­posed ap­proach is second best is plainly in­cor­rect, giv­en the ex­tens­ive testi­mony on the auto­ma­tion, re­li­ab­il­ity and re­duc­tion of op­por­tun­it­ies for hu­man ef­fort provided by” the sys­tem, the com­pany said.

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