Construction started this month on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River, SC. The facility when operational will convert 34 tons of surplus U.S. weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel. The plant is part of an agreement with Russia for each country to dispose of 34 tons each of surplus plutonium. There's enough metal in the mix to make 17,000 nuclear weapons according to World Nuclear News.Government nonproliferation experts are relieved that more weapons-grade material is coming out of circulation. NNSA’s Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, William Tobey, said,“The start of construction of the U.S. MOX facility helps us fulfill an international nonproliferation agreement and marks a major step forward in our efforts with Russia to dispose of surplus weapon-grade plutonium so that it can never be used again for nuclear weapons,”
The people who will build and work at the plant are overjoyed. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) waxed ecstatically about new facility. Wilson, who sits on a batch of military affairs committees in the House, seems to have no real connection to NNSA, which runs the Savannah River plant, other than the coincidence that it is located in his district.
"The construction of this new facility means more than just a commitment to cleaning up our supply of excess plutonium. It will bring new jobs to South Carolina and provide a readily available supply of nuclear fuel to help meet our energy needs. There is no reason, in a time of increased demand, that we should let a vital energy source sit dormant in the ground."
Not everyone was so thrilled. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a press release on 8/1 complaining that the $4.8B plant is being kept secret from inspections by the IAEA. Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist, wrote a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman that the U.S. has an obligation to set an example for other countries by putting the MOX fuel plant under IAEA safeguards. What Lyman wants is for the IAEA to get a look at the facility design six months before the start of construction. Since ground has already broken for the plant, the UCS request has the appearance of seeking to stop work on the facility.The New York Time reported on August 1st that Laura Holgate, who was director of fissile materials disposition in the Clinton Administration, said that building the plant in South Carolina was, "the least bad option." She said that conversion of plutonium to reactor fuel would be matched by a similar effort by the Russians which would cut the total inventory of weapons-grade plutonium. Without referring to UCS by name, she said that opposition to the plant comes from people who oppose nuclear power in any form.
The new facility will be constructed by Shaw Areva MOX Services. The MOX fuel manufactured by the facility will be used in commercial nuclear reactors in North Carolina and South Carolina generating enough electricity for around one million households for 50 years. The NNSA told World Nuclear News this estimate was based on projections that the MOX fuel would produce 200 billion kWh of electricity. The plant will be operational and producing nuclear fuel on 2016.