MOX nuclear fuel program leading to more weapons proliferation

How a Massive Nuclear Nonproliferation Effort Led to More Proliferation, The Atlantic,  More than a decade of negotiations with Russia produced a clear winner, and it was not the United States. DOUGLAS BIRCH AND R. JEFFREY SMITHJUN 24 2013 SAVANNAH RIVER SITE, South Carolina – A half-finished monolith of raw concrete and rebar rises suddenly from slash pine forests as the public tour bus crests a hill at this heavily-secured site south of rural Aiken.
Dark clouds hover over this ambitious federal project, 17 years in the making and at least six more from completion–if, indeed, it is ever completed. It lies at the center of one of the United States’ most troubled, technically complex, costly, and controversial efforts to secure nuclear explosive materials left stranded by the end of the Cold War.
This plant – and another just like it in Russia — is meant to transform one of these materials, plutonium, into commercial reactor fuel that can be burned to provide electricity for homes, schools and factories, essentially turning nuclear “swords into ploughshares.” The aim of the so-called Mixed Oxide, or MOX, plant is to ensure the material never winds up in the hands of terrorists.

In the right hands, only nine pounds of plutonium — an amount about the size of a baseball — could make a bomb as powerful as the one the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The world’s military and civilian nuclear programs have produced about 500 metric tons of pure plutonium, an amount that could fuel tens of thousands of nuclear weapons yet fit into a backyard shed. Countries with nuclear programs continue to add roughly two tons to this inventory every year.
Washington has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to help secure or remove plutonium and weapons-grade uranium in dozens of countries. But the U.S.-Russia plutonium disposition program, which includes the Savannah River plant, is the U.S. government’s single most expensive nonproliferation project now, according to Michelle Cann, senior budget analyst with a nonprofit group called Partnership for Global Security.

Its aim is to eliminate 34 metric tons of U.S. plutonium — or 40 percent of the U.S. stockpile of military plutonium — in exchange for a similar destruction of 34 tons of plutonium in Russia.

But that noble goal has slowly turned into a classic Washington disaster.
The plant here –the core of the American half of the bargain –is so grossly over its original budget and so unlikely to achieve its original ambitions that lawmakers and government officials in Washington are on the verge of killing it –even though $3.7 billion has already been spent.

After four contentious, high-level recent government meetings – including several attended by the secretaries of State, Defense and Energy – the Obama administration has proposed to put the plant’s construction on life support, at a cost of $320 million in the next year, while it examines a cheaper method of eliminating the plutonium.

Blown deadlines, lax oversight, and design and construction snafus have transformed the project into an embarrassing symbol of mismanagement by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which auditors have repeatedly placed on the government’s “high risk” list of agencies vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.

And the original deal with the Russians that called for construction of the U.S. plant has been quietly altered and twisted to the point that Russia may actually emerge from the arrangement with more plutonium in its stocks, not less, experts say…… .”


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