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– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Kingston Reif

Trump Budget Supports MOX Termination


July/August 2017
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessor, is seeking to end construction of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, although it remains to be seen if Congress will support the proposal.

The plant, which is under construction, is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors.

A May 26 aerial view of the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. (Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of High Flyer ©2017)



The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, released May 23, would provide $270 million for termination costs. In addition, the administration would spend $9 million for preliminary work on an alternative plutonium-disposition path chosen by the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The proposal is part of the admini­stration’s $1.8 billion request for NNSA nonproliferation programs in fiscal year 2018.

The U.S. effort to dispose of its plutonium via the MOX fuel path has experienced major cost increases and schedule delays that put the project in jeopardy. The NNSA estimates the total construction cost of the project at $17 billion, of which approximately $5 billion has already been spent. The agency projects the annual cost to operate the facility at $800 million to $1 billion.

The alternative “dilute and dispose” process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. That approach can be implemented decades sooner, at a much lower cost, and with fewer risks, according to the NNSA. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The agency plans to spend $500 million to get the alternative approach up and running and $400 million annually to implement it.

Despite the Energy Department’s efforts to terminate the MOX fuel project, Congress, led by the delegation from South Carolina, has refused to abandon it. Congress provided the NNSA with $335 million to continue construction of the MOX fuel plant in fiscal year 2017, rejecting the Obama administration’s proposal to end the project. (See ACT, June 2017.) Congress also provided $15 million, the same as the budget request and an increase of $10 million over the fiscal year 2016 level, to complete design activities for the dilute-and-dispose alternative.

Excluding the MOX fuel program, the Trump administration is asking for $1.5 billion for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs, roughly the same as the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

When measured against what the NNSA said it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2017 submission, however, the fiscal year 2018 proposal would provide more than $200 million less than projected. The 2018 request continues a trend of either flat or reduced funding for core NNSA nonproliferation activities. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. The program would get $337 million, a $30 million reduction from the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

According to budget documents, the decline from the enacted level “reflects a commitment to reduce” unspent money left over from previous fiscal years by spending it in fiscal year 2018, permitting a lower request.

The Material Management and Minimization program, which supports the removal of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium around the world and converts HEU-fueled research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to the use of low-enriched uranium, would receive $332 million, an increase of $44 million over the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

Nuclear material removal activities would get $33 million, a decrease of $66 million. The drop is based on “the political and technical challenges that have delayed implementation of several removal efforts including those in Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan,” according to budget documents.

Some lawmakers continue to question the wisdom of proposed reductions in funding for NNSA nuclear and radiological security activities.

The fiscal year 2018 budget request “is part of a long and troubling trend,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing June 14. Although the NNSA’s nuclear weapons program “has increased a staggering $3.8 billion” since 2010, Feinstein said, “the nonproliferation program has seen a $343 million decrease.”

“Troublemaking by Russia, the rise of the Islamic State, and nuclear provocation by North Korea—tell me now is not the time to let down on nuclear security,” Feinstein added.—KINGSTON REIF

Trump Budget Supports MOX Termination

Safety at Nuclear Sites Scrutinized

A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory is shown working on a plutonium “pit,” a key component in nuclear warheads, in a 2011 photograph. The pit, when compressed by chemical explosives, initiates a weapon’s nuclear chain reaction. (Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)A wide-ranging investigation published in June by the Center for Public Integrity revealed unpublicized safety lapses at Energy Department nuclear weapons sites during the past decade that the group said endangered the lives of laboratory workers and, in some cases, imperiled site operations. The investigation also found that the government imposed relatively small penalties on the contractors operating the sites.

In one particularly serious incident documented in the investi­gation, technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico “placed rods of plutonium so closely together on a table in 2011 that they nearly caused a runaway nuclear chain reaction, which would likely have killed all those nearby and spread cancer-causing plutonium particles.” The accident prompted the shutdown until last year of the facility at the lab that houses virtually all the country’s plutonium operations, including the testing and production of the plutonium pits for U.S. nuclear weapons. In a June 19 statement, Frank Klotz, administrator of the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, defended the agency’s safety record and said it withheld more than $82 million in contractor payments in the 2013-2016 period due to “a range of safety and operational issues at Los Alamos.”—KINGSTON REIF

Safety at Nuclear Sites Scrutinized

 

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News Source / Outlet: 
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News Date: 
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Senate Puts Trump’s Saudi Arms Sales Plans on Notice

Body: 

For Immediate Release: June 13, 2017

Media Contacts: Jeff Abramson, senior fellow (646) 527-5793; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director (202-463-8270 x107)

(Washington, D.C.)—Congressional votes to block major arms deals are very rare, but today a substantial, bipartisan group of 47 Senators voted to support S.J. Resolution 42, a resolution of disapproval to transfer U.S. precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, which is waging a controversial military campaign in Yemen. The close vote was a rebuke of Trump’s Middle East policy. In the final tally, 47 Senators voted for full consideration of the resolution, while 53 rejected that step.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2017. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. BrantleyThe growing opposition to the roughly $500 million sale indicates that President Trump will face tough resistance should he try to move forward with other elements of the still mostly undefined $110 billion arms package he announced last month to Saudi Arabia.

“The Senate’s bipartisan stand today against the sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia puts the Trump administration on notice that their approach is off target,” said Jeff Abramson, nonresident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.

“The United States should not be sending more weapons into an unwinnable conflict and into the hands of a country that uses U.S. weapons against civilian targets. Instead, the Trump administration should use its influence to find a political solution to the disastrous war in Yemen, which has led to a massive humanitarian crisis,” Abramson added.  

“Current U.S. conventional arms transfer policy includes the goal of ‘Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.’” Abramson noted.

“With today’s vote, the Senate is sending a strong message that U.S. arms transfers should not go to states that target civilians and violate human rights.”

Additional resources

  • “Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should Be Rejected,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Volume 9, Issue 3, May 2017.
  • “Defiant Congress Sparks Showdown With Trump Over Saudi Arms Deal,” Arms Control Today, June 2017.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Description: 

Senate Puts Trump’s Saudi Arms Sales Plans on Notice

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News Source / Outlet: 
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