New budget troubles arise
Austerity pressures in Washington have created new obstacles for the companies and their lobbyists. The Obama administration, after convening four high-level meetings about the MOX plant this spring, urged a 50 percent cut in its planned spending in fiscal year 2014, to just $320 million.
"Cost growth and fiscal pressure may make the project unaffordable," the Energy Department said in its formal budget proposal to Congress. A spokesman for the department declined comment about the review now underway.
Joan Rohlfing, a former DOE official who is president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group that promotes action to reduce the dangers posed by plutonium, said she believes the project is still worth completing. Halting "our near-term ability to dispose of excess plutonium would be a setback to our ability to reach critical security goals," she said.
Likewise, a Russian government official who has followed the program closely denied that the breeder program undermined nonproliferation goals and said the project was still worth pursuing to reduce the threat of a theft of nuclear materials.
But Matthew Bunn, who helped launch the effort, says the current deal is too modest and, under the best of circumstances, would leave Russia with enough plutonium to build more than 25,000 new nuclear weapons. Some things are worth doing for $10, but not for $100, he says.
Von Hippel joined three other scientists last May in advocating the burial alternative in a scientific journal article about Britain's plutonium stocks. One co-author was Rodney Ewing, whom Obama has since appointed to head a federal nuclear waste panel, and another was Allison MacFarlane, now chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The MOX plant, if it is completed, needs an NRC license.
Ewing, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, said in an interview that recent research leaves no doubt that plutonium can be locked into a crystalline ceramic material and stored safely underground for tens of thousands of years.
Administration officials say the main purpose of their "strategic reassessment" is to reexamine the burial alternative. A DOE report in 2002 concluded it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less than building the MOX plant. But it cited two factors that trumped the cost savings then and may do so again: Russia's hostility to the idea and the absence of "employment that would have been created in South Carolina."