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Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is the executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail address is lking@kingpublishing.com

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Obama’s Nuclear Waste Blunders Could Cost Taxpayers Over $20 Billion

Obama’s Nuclear Waste Blunders Could Cost Taxpayers Over $20 Billion

President Obama says otherwise, but he seems to have a propensity for slapping the nuclear industry across the face.

When the Obama administration came into power, one of its first actions was to end work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. In so doing, it delivered a shuddering blow to the U.S. nuclear industry, trashing the project when it was nearly ready to open. The cost to taxpayers was about $15 billion.

Now the administration is going through the motions to suspend another costly nuclear waste investment when it is about 67 percent complete. Money expended: $4.5 billion. Shutdown cost: $1 billion.

The object of its latest volte face is the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) on the Department of Energy's Savannah River site in South Carolina. Work started on the facility in 2007, with a 2016 startup envisaged.

But unlike Yucca Mountain, few people outside of the nuclear industry know about the genesis and purpose of the MFFF project. Related: Saudis Expand Price War Downstream

The project was initiated as a result of a 2000 agreement with the Russians, later amended, in which both countries agreed to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium -- the transuranic element that is the key component of a modern nuclear weapon, and remains radioactive essentially forever.

The DOE's plan was for the facility to mix the plutonium with uranium to create a fuel for civil nuclear reactors to produce electricity. This recycling technology, developed in the United States originally, has been used in France since 1995.

The DOE has not yet taken a wrecking ball to the MFFF, but it is taking the first steps toward demolition. On June 25, the DOE issued a press release that the industry read as a precursor to a death warrant. The department announced that it was creating a “Red Team,” headed by Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to review “plutonium disposition options and make recommendations.”

The DOE statement said the team would “assess the MOX [mixed oxide] fuel approach, the downblending and disposal approach, and any other approaches the team deems feasible and cost effective." Related: This Week In Energy: Rout Begins As WTI Can’t Stand The Pressure

Industry sources say the choice is between the MOX approach and so-called downblending. In that application, the plutonium is not burned up but is spiked and mixed with a modifier that makes it unusable in weapons. Then it would be disposed either in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., or in a new repository, if one is commissioned.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been pushing the downblending option. But it is using numbers that many believe to be extremely speculative. They come from a private consulting firm hired by the DOE, Aerospace Corporation.

The first number is that the life-cycle cost of the MFFF would be $30 billion, while the life-cycle cost for downblending would be only $9 billion. These numbers are contested by the contractor building the facility, a joint venture between the construction firm Chicago Bridge & Iron Company and the French nuclear technology giant Areva. They point out that plutonium has never been downblended and that the WIPP in New Mexico has had its own problems. On Feb. 5, 2014, the plant closed after a salt truck caught fire; there was an unrelated radiological release nine days later. The plant is still closed.

It is believed that Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz favors the MFFF approach as a permanent and scientifically attractive solution, rather than burying the plutonium in New Mexico or elsewhere. However, he may be overruled by the White House and the military chiefs, who know that they are going to have to raise money on a huge scale for nuclear weapons modernization, in light of the deteriorated relationship with Russia and China’s continuing military buildup. Related: This Is Why A Serious Decline In U.S Shale Plays Is Not Far Away


If the MFFF is canceled, it will join a long list of nuclear projects that the government has ordered up and canceled later, often with a huge waste of public money. Another negative is the wastage of engineering talent. Families move to sites, buy houses and send their children to local schools. Then come the pink slips and years of demanding engineering effort are nixed by policy, politics and general incoherence in Washington.

By Llewellyn King for Oilprice.com

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  • razzz on July 27 2015 said:
    Without any background in actual reprocessing of nuclear fuels (the procedure itself) which can be either enrichment or downgrading this article draws erroneous conclusions.

    Reprocessing produces the worst chemical wastes imaginable alongside releasing nuclear fallout at the same time. Think Hanford where decades later, it is no closer to being cleaned up than when it first came into existence.

    All the time, energy and money spent to nuke Japan and the long term result is nuclear and chemical wasted that can't be dealt with after processing nuke bomb material (uranium and plutonium). This envisioned new plant would be no different, another super-fund cleanup site to dump money into.

    As to WIPP, it was originally meant to be a low yield nuke waste dump i.e. nuked work gloves, tools, miscellaneous items incidental to nuclear handling. It morphed into a chemical and outright plutonium/uranium dump site, something it was never meant to be or designed to handle. Ever since a barrel containing plutonium wastes burst it has turned the underground caverns radioactive and the surrounding environment due to radioactive exhaust venting to the atmosphere there. The main vent/air shaft is so radioactive that a new shaft has to be constructed and the old one abandoned. More money wasted. Not mention over a hundred above ground workers being exposed to plutonium particulates and worse at the time of the accident.

    As with from all nuclear power generation and/or enrichment plants, there is no answer for long term safe storage of resulting nuclear and chemical wastes being produced and adds enormous costs that the nuclear industry pretends is solvable. Without government (taxpayers monies) sponsored options of storage and handling, the nuclear industry is not viable.

    Forcing companies and foreign governments to deal with there own nuke wastes might make them realize the futility of the nuke industry as a whole and slow or maybe end the chain of nuke and chemical wastes. Existing wastes are another matter with no answers...like Daiichi, a local problem that spreads worldwide in the long run.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on July 29 2015 said:
    Government nets a lot of its income on fossil fuels. Innocent people keep dying as a result of the use of those fuels, and to the extent that nuclear power has been allowed to encroach on fossil fuels' share of the work, it has saved such lives. But for each one saved, government has left millions of dollars in private citizens' pockets: dollars that might have been fossil fuel tax revenue.
  • American blue Collar on August 26 2015 said:
    Why are we even still working with nuclear material and waste anyways. Profiting off of dangerous products and shit that will hurt our future and health is the whats wrong with most political officials and upper class people. Yall keep blaming shit on Obama when he has been a lot better than both the Bush idiots.
  • Rebel on September 15 2015 said:
    Why are we still working with fossil fuels anyways. They promote conflict, cause the gap between rich and poor to widen. Drilling ruins environments along with tanker spills, pipeline leaks, and if all goes well, it comes out your tailpipe as CO2. Boy that is some clean energy resource we have here. Now how many people have died from radiation exposure vs. the number of people killed by dictators, oppressed by revenue dependent sheiks and their bros, and from smog? I am thinking it dwarves the number from Chernobyl, 3 mile island and Fukushima. Those spent fuel rods you call waste are actually a VALUABLE fuel source for FAST NEUTRON REACTORS, so it's not really waste at all but fuel.
    People should read about all the nuclear tech out there evolving. Because of beauraucracy and average American's stupidity, China and India will move to 1st world countries and USA will become a 3rd world country whose only real export will be reality shows. We should have Einsteins leading our country and not popular idiots that are in someone's pockets.

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