Congress Funds Plutonium Plant That Every Sane Person Wants Shut Down

Three months ago, the White House halted construction on a plutonium recycling facility where gross mismanagement had led to lengthy delays and billions of dollars of added expenses. Yet, this week, the House approved $345 million to continue building the plant, which will produce nuclear fuel that nobody wants.

As io9 reported last week, the U.S. government has been building a facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which would have been used to convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide nuclear fuel, or MOX. The initiative has been highly controversial since it began, due, in part, to concerns that it would be a proliferation risk. MOX fuel can be converted back into weapons-grade plutonium, which means it could be used by terrorists as bomb-making material if it was stolen or diverted. On top of that, nuclear power plants in the U.S. have no desire to use the MOX fuel.

When the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report about mismanagement and cost overruns, the Obama administration placed that facility in standby mode—providing minimal funding until we could decide upon a better way to dispose of plutonium. To date, the Savannah River Site plant, which is 58% complete, has cost $4 billion and, according to the GAO, will cost another $30 billion to operate over its lifetime.

But, as the August Chronicle reports, Congress seems inclined to keep the project going:

The Senate has not yet considered the 2015 spending bill for federal energy and water projects. Recent congressional action, however, has left political backers of the project optimistic about the future of MOX.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said bipartisan support has been an important signal that the MOX project will get funding needed to continue construction.

"Congressman Wilson is confident that the MOX funding figure will be significantly higher than the president's proposed number," said spokeswoman Caroline Delleney. "The president's proposal did not reflect the best interest of our national security, the environmental safety of residents in the [Central Savannah River Area] or the American taxpayers."

In an effort to avoid layoffs while an analysis is completed on the plant's future, the House Energy and Water Appropriation Subcommittee approved $150 million more than the Obama administration's request for fiscal year 2015.

In recent weeks, the House and Senate also acted in favor of MOX by authorizing spending for the project's construction in the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate Armed Services Committee last week increased funding for the plant by $145 million and directed the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous branch of the U.S. Energy Department which manages the MOX project, to continue construction.

So, the Senate is telling the same government agency that screwed up the project to continue managing the project, which is supposedly crucial for our national security even though experts—both inside and outside of government—have warned us that it's a threat to our national security.

Ironically, this past week offered another reminder of the risks associated with MOX.

From The Japan Times:

Japan failed to include 640 kg of unused plutonium in its annual reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2012 and 2013, in what experts are terming an "inappropriate omission."

The stock is part of mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (MOX) fuel stored in a reactor that was offline during this period, and was thus deemed exempt from IAEA reporting requirements, said an official at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

Experts warn that Japan's reporting does not reflect the actual state of unused plutonium that could be diverted for nuclear weapons. The unreported amount is enough to make about 80 nuclear bombs.

Japan is subject to rigorous international monitoring, as it possesses the largest amount of plutonium among nonnuclear weaponized nations, with more than 44 tons extracted from spent fuel and reprocessed for reuse under its nuclear fuel cycle policy.

The unreported plutonium was first reported by Kakujoho, a nuclear information website headed by nuclear policy analyst Masafumi Takubo.

Nice to know, after two years, we've been in the dark about how much weapons-grade plutonium Japan possesses. And, if you think the U.S. keeps careful track of all its nuclear assets, think again.