Editorial: Wasting billions in federal tax dollars just the pits - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Wasting billions in federal tax dollars just the pits

How many billions-with-a-“b” of your tax dollars is the federal government willing to waste on bad nuclear decisions? It’s in the tens of billions already, with the meter in overdrive.

There’s the $15 billion already plowed into the Yucca Mountain storage site, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev., since 1987. The project has yet to take a thimble of nuclear waste, having been abandoned since 2010. There’s the $4 billion Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site. MOX was designed to transform weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel as part of a disarmament deal with the Russians. It’s more than a decade old, was supposed to open in 2016, is barely 70 percent complete and is over budget – cost estimates have skyrocketed from $1.4 billion to $17 billion.

And now there’s the multibillion plan to split the job of making plutonium pits between Los Alamos National Laboratory and a re-purposed MOX facility. As the National Nuclear Security Administration unveiled the pit production plan, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry executed a waiver to terminate MOX construction. MOX would now have to be revamped to churn out 50 pits by 2030, even though a nuclear pit has never been produced in South Carolina and there are questions of whether the complex work is even possible in the Palmetto State’s humidity. LANL would get an estimated $3 billion makeover to expand its production line, even though it has never made more than 11 pits a year and has made exactly zero since 2011; it has to crank out 30 under the new deal.

And that nuclear waste that was destined for MOX? It would end up headed to – wait for it – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in a “dilute and dispose” operation. New Mexico never signed up for this level of waste. South Carolina lawmakers, who want MOX and its 2,000 jobs to remain, say “DOE says it now wants to pursue ‘dilute and dispose,’ but that plan was already considered and rejected…. this could lead to the permanent orphaning of at least 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium, enough for thousands of warheads.”

Yes, on one hand, it makes sense to find another mission for MOX – in 10 years, a utility has yet to come forward and say it wants to buy what MOX was ultimately supposed to be selling. And it is certainly politically expedient to throw a multibillion-dollar nuclear job-creator bone to South Carolina – after all, that’s where the head of the U.S. Senate resides.

But on the other, there are real questions about whether the U.S. really needs 80 new pits for an estimated $1.4 trillion-with-a-“t.” The magic 80 number comes from an Obama-era vast weapons modernization make-work plan, and Trump is expected to up that ante. Yet, the United States already has 12,000 spare pits and in storage those “have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years,” according to an independent advisory panel cited in The Economist. Making pits also produces a lot of waste, and as mentioned above, the nation can’t dispose of the metric tons it already has – more than 70,000 metric tons of used reactor fuel is in temporary facilities in 39 states and 55 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium is in bunkers at the Energy Department’s Pantex warhead assembly-disassembly plant outside Amarillo and in an old reactor building at the Savannah River Site.

N.M. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján are saying “instead of wasting billions of dollars exploring the construction of a new facility that will likely never be completed somewhere else, the Department of Energy should immediately move forward with the new, modular plutonium facilities at Los Alamos – as originally endorsed by both Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council.” And LANL director Terry Wallace says “this commitment by the government to expand our plutonium mission reiterates the critical role we play in ensuring the nation’s security.”

There’s something to be said for going with what you know, and the nation knows LANL can build pits. But there are also billions of reasons to take a hard, unbiased look at what the nation truly needs to keep its nuclear deterrence vibrant.

And what is just expensive and dangerous busy work.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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