Is the United States losing its managerial and technical ability to build big, complex projects? Both the scuttled mixed-oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site near Aiken and the abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear reactors beg the question.
The failed projects, both of which sucked billions of dollars into a black hole, should prompt some deep soul searching within the Department of Energy, as well as among leading engineering and construction firms in the private sector. After all, the French have been reprocessing spent reactor fuel since 1976 and, over the past decade, the Chinese have successfully completed four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors like the two for the failed V.C. Summer expansion.
Politics no doubt played a big role in dooming MOX, but so did poor planning and lax oversight.
In plumbing the failed MOX project for answers, Post and Courier reporters Thad Moore and Glenn Smith also learned that the U.S. nuclear industry had atrophied by the early 2000s after the United States committed to the nuclear nonproliferation project as part of a treaty with Russia.
That alone is a cause for national shame. Because what good is our scientific know-how if we can’t build what we conceive?
MOX represented the first big U.S. nuclear project in decades, yet apparently no one sufficiently questioned the government’s ability to manage and complete such an ambitious project, despite the fact that nuclear physicists knew that processing weapons-grade plutonium into reactor fuel would be far more complicated and dangerous than reprocessing spent reactor fuel, as is done in France.
But once the money started flowing and stockpiles of plutonium started arriving at SRS from around the world, the DOE began fielding a flurry of complaints from contractors about their inability to find and retain workers with exacting fabrication and construction skills, mistakes made in material purchases and an endless stream of uncoordinated design changes.
Anne Harrington, put in charge of overseeing MOX for the National Nuclear Security Administration in 2010, summed it up this way: “The decision-makers at the time naively thought that U.S. capacity was sufficient to handle this kind of large nuclear project,” Harrington said. “This program helped bring back lost skills, but it brought them back at a huge cost.”
As South Carolina’s congressional delegation fought back naysayers in Washington, D.C., securing just enough funding to keep the project alive, contractors insisted the government cover ever-increasing cost overruns. That combination stymied progress. Even getting the radiation-proof “gloveboxes” fabricated for handling materials turned into a nightmare for a well-qualified contractor, mainly because of design changes.
According to a nuclear watchdog group, inflexible U.S. standards also slowed progress as did shifting priorities over several presidential administrations.
The ultimate responsibility — and blame — for the failed project lies mainly with the DOE, which now must figure out a way to keep its promise to South Carolinians and move some 12 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium out of the state. That’s a big challenge in light of the United States still having no comprehensive policy for reusing or disposing of fissionable material. The Trump administration, however, is pushing the idea of reprocessing part of the plutonium into bomb cores, with the work split between SRS and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
What the federal government needs is a new, politically insulated, single-mission agency charged with safely disposing of unneeded plutonium stockpiles as well as huge volumes of nuclear waste. Restarting the mothballed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada would be one way forward. Depositing plutonium in deep bore holes is another well-studied option.
Clearly, the DOE must fulfill its pledge to South Carolina. In the bigger picture, the United States cannot afford to stand still as the rest of the nuclear world moves ahead with projects for permanently storing materials that, unless transmuted into less dangerous substances, will remain highly radioactive and toxic for tens of thousands of years.