President Bush Promises $3.8 billion for MOX Facility

* President George W. Bush announced this week that he will pledge $3.8 billion for two mixed oxide (or MOX) fuel plants at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. If the facilities are built, they will be the first full-scale commercial MOX production facilities in the U.S. In February 2001, Duke Cogema Stone & Webster, the company that would be operating the facility, submitted a "Construction Authorization Request" to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

MOX is produced by mixing uranium oxide and plutonium oxide to create fuel pellets that are used in nuclear reactors. The MOX produced by the Savannah River facility would be used in reactors owned by Duke Powers in North and South Carolina. MOX was conceived as a way for the Department of Energy (or DOE) to rid itself of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium following the Cold War. Although MOX production does not dispose of the plutonium, it does make it impossible to extract plutonium from the fuel pellets for weapons production. Representative Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said, "[MOX production] will keep [Savannah River] one of the crown jewels of [DOE] and help the world become safer."

President Bush also pledged that no plutonium would remain in South Carolina. There had been dissension to the plan by South Carolina's Governor, Jim Hodges, when he feared that President Bush would not draft a permanent disposal plan for the plutonium. However, upon hearing of the plan this week, Governor Hodges said that it "sounds promising ... I just want to make sure that Congress is committed to funding it. I want to ensure that they don't ship the plutonium to South Carolina, then cut the funding and leave it here."

However, the spent MOX fuel would need to be disposed of. Due to the proportionally high levels of plutonium in the fuel, there would be increased release of plutonium and other transuranic elements should there be a severe accident. Also, because of high levels of plutonium, spent MOX fuel is more dangerous than typical spent fuel. Currently, the only facility capable of receiving such dangerous waste is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP) near Carlsbad, although, the proposed Yucca Mountain waste disposal facility in Nevada would also receive such wastes, if it is built. The DOE has yet to announce the plan and its implications in New Mexico, although activists are concerned about the lack of public participation in the plan as yet.

MOX production would mean that at least two metric tons of additional plutonium would shipped to WIPP. Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center said, "The MOX decisions means that there is almost a 20 percent increase of plutonium that DOE now plans to bring to WIPP. This decision was made with no public notice or public hearing, even though it could mean either many more waste shipments to WIPP or shipments with much larger amounts of radioactivity. At a minimum, DOE must explain its decision and its implications for New Mexicans. In the meantime, the New Mexico congressional delegation should not support the decision and should oppose the funding needed to implement it."

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