Plutonium Waste Begets Budget Waste

Many in Congress fumed last year when a green energy company – Solyndra – defaulted on a $535 million government loan, resulting from some bad management decisions and the market falling out from under the company. What happens when the government spends $5 billion on a poorly managed plutonium program that has no market?

The plutonium project is the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility. It sounds good on paper. If completed, the facility would help turn 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors.

In practice, MOX is a government oversight disaster in the making. Think Solyndra, but multiply the dollars by ten and add nuclear bomb material.

MOX has no customers. Electricity producers – like Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority – are reluctant to even test the fuel, understanding that MOX fuel has a troubled safety record and is more difficult to use and store.  Undeterred, the government is moving forward with a $5 billion plant to produce the fuel that no company is expected to buy. Making matters worse, the program raises nuclear proliferation concerns by legitimizing the use of weapons plutonium for commerce and crowding out funds for essential nonproliferation programs.

These problems have not escaped the attention of some in Congress.

Last week, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) pointed out the program’s serious flaws and questioned its “viability and fiscal wisdom” in a letter to the Secretary of Energy.

Rep. Markey, who has long opposed the program on environmental impact and nonproliferation concerns, is now questioning if the program is “both wasting taxpayer dollars and ultimately failing to reduce our store of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.”

This is the latest effort in a growing, bipartisan push that is challenging the MOX program.

Last April, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to its energy and water appropriation bill that would cut the MOX budget by $169 million in FY2013. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), the amendment’s sponsor, said “MOX has cost billions in taxpayer dollars with little practical effect.”

Halting the MOX program and pursuing better alternatives would be a victory for good government. It would prevent budget waste and put the US on a safer, more sustainable track for managing its excess plutonium.

Ploughshares Fund is proud to support organizations – including the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, the Project on Government Oversight and many more – who work with Congress to put the MOX project in check and push for smarter solutions.


Photo: Savannah River Site - Mixed Oxide (MOX) construction site / Flickr (cc)