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Nuclear oversight board will keep an eye on proposed MOX rework, chairman says

May 27, 2019

An independent nuclear watchdog will likely monitor and analyze the proposed weapons-oriented future of the mothballed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site as it develops, according to written testimony recently submitted to a congressional defense panel.

In a detailed May 7 letter to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board chairman Bruce Hamilton said, among other things, his agency is obliged to look over the design of a repurposed MOX and make recommendations that would ensure better protection of “public health and safety.”

The chairman expects the safety board to periodically monitor actual construction, as well, if and when that happens. He expects his agency will mind the facility if and when, again, it comes online and serves as one of the nation’s production hubs for plutonium pits, which are nuclear weapon cores.

At least 80 plutonium pits per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading nuclear policy document.

No actual DNFSB oversight plan is in place yet, Hamilton noted, because the MOX-to-pits transition, a pitch now being explored and conceptualized, is still quite young.

But simply put, the DNFSB would lend a set of scrutinizing eyes to a project of national significance – and of national defense – suggested for the Palmetto State.

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon on Tuesday said he would “welcome” the sort of evaluation and overwatch the safety board would bring. Another observer, he said, can’t hurt.

Congress established the DNFSB in 1988 to surveil and inform U.S. Department of Energy work. The board has access to myriad nuclear sites across the country and is empowered to make recommendations to the U.S. secretary of energy, currently Rick Perry.

The DNFSB – an investigative check, of sorts – issues weekly reports on the sites it watches, publicly documenting safety lapses, emergency exercises and the status of major projects, among other things. At SRS, the safety board in recent months reported a work pause at the Savannah River National Laboratory, a minor accident at the Salt Waste Processing Facility and an equipment failure at the Defense Waste Processing Facility.

Hamilton’s answers were written from a personal perspective and serve as a formal follow-up to an early-April House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing. Cooper is the chairman of that subcommittee.

MOX was designed to turn 34 metric tons of surplus defense plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors. The never-finished facility at SRS was a keystone to a nuclear nonproliferation pact – the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement – between the U.S and Russia.

Russia in 2016 reportedly waved off the agreement, later decrying shifting U.S. attitudes toward MOX.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous slice of the DOE, terminated the MOX project on October 10, 2018. The project was over-budget and past due, with billions of dollars already spent.

Five months prior, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense together recommended repurposing MOX for an enduring nuclear weapons mission. At least 50 plutonium pits per year by 2030 would be pumped out at the recapitalized MOX, per the joint recommendation. Another 30 pits per year would be produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The new cores would be used in a grander weapons-refreshment effort, energy and defense officials have said.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request included $410 million for early-stage design work and related activities for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility – the DOE’s name for the prospective SRS pit factory.

“MOX may be worth more dead than alive,” reads Cooper’s introduction to the April hearing.

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