United States to look for more efficient plutonium disposition options

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration released an update of the status of the U.S. plutonium disposition program. The program supports the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), under which the two countries pledged to eliminate at least 34 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium each. The press release states:

The current strategy to implement this agreement in the United States involves the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), under the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, building a Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, a capability to disassemble nuclear weapons pits and convert the resulting plutonium into a form suitable to be made into MOX fuel, and a Waste Solidification Building to handle the waste resulting from pit disassembly and MOX operations at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

However, unanticipated cost increases for the MOX project and plutonium disposition program have prompted the Department to slow down the MOX project and other activities associated with the current plutonium disposition strategy while determining whether there are options to complete the mission more efficiently.

According to recent estimates, the cost of the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) reached $7.7 billion - a substantial increase fromt the original estimate of about $1 billion (an estimated $3.7 billion has been already spent). The program also encountered a number of problems with finding utilities that would be willing to use the MOX fuel.

Under the U.S.-Russian agreement, the United States committed to provide Russia with $400 million to support its plutonium disposition program. According to the Protocol to PMDA (PDF), about $300 million of these funds would be available for construction and development. However, the NNSA press release says that "majority of funds will be used for implementing the IAEA Verification Regime, long-term storage of the spent fuel that Russia otherwise would reprocess, and IAEA confirmed disposal of Russian weapon-grade plutonium." It is not clear if any of these funds would go toward construction of the MOX fuel fabrication facility in Russia.