Time to Pull the Plug on MOX

Some things never seem to change, sometimes to the detriment of the U.S. taxpayer. Allowing parochial interests to trump national ones is a Washington tradition that lives on. Case in point: this week Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) placed a “hold” on the nomination of Dr. Ernest Moniz, a well-respected MIT professor and former Undersecretary of Energy, to be the next head of the Department of Energy (DOE). The reason? The senator is concerned about administration plans to reduce the budget request for the plutonium fuel program at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina known as MOX.

The MOX program began with noble purposes. It was a joint commitment by Russia and the United States to dispose of dozens of tons of weapons plutonium from excess stocks at the end of the Cold War. The plan was to blend the plutonium with standard nuclear power plant fuel (low-enriched uranium) to create a “mixed oxide” (hence MOX) fuel for use in civilian power plants. Akin to the “Megatons to Megawatts” program that converted significant amounts of bomb-grade uranium for electricity, the MOX program hoped to do the same for plutonium. The goal was to derive benefits from some of the most deadly materials on the planet while simultaneously “de-weaponizing” it. Truly a “swords to plowshares” approach, right?

But the MOX program soon ran into the realities and complexities of implementing such a large, complex and unproven technology. Costs rose each year, milestones slipped and the “customers” for the product did not materialize – not one nuclear power plant utility signed up to take the fuel. Today, the MOX program is among a number of monuments to DOE mismanagement and cost escalation. Lucky for us, there are other ways to manage and secure the plutonium until we devise a better plan for dealing with the material. But Senator Graham doesn’t see it that way. According to the Global Security Newswire, Graham stated:

“When it comes to lowering costs, count me in,” Graham said to Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, at a budget hearing Tuesday. “When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out.… We’re halfway through,” Graham said to Harrington. “There is no other way to do it.”

For its part, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), stated that the current budget environment demands that we “step back and review all available options.” Given its wiliness to spend serious tax-payer dollars on seemingly dead-end project in the past, when the NNSA sounds reasonable and cost-aware, we know something is truly up.

MOX has not realized its original purpose. There are alternatives to pursue. The time has come to stop throwing good money after bad. Dr. Moniz understands the science and policy implications of programs like MOX. If they allow him a fair and thorough hearing, the Senate will benefit. Moniz testimony could help the Senate make the right choice and jump off the rails that have kept the U.S. on the MOX train for far too long.