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Explosive costs hamper U.S. effort to dispose of nuclear arms

The Washington Post

Costs can explode like fireworks when it comes to disposing of nuclear weapons.

For example, it could cost more money and take longer to get rid of just 37.5 tons of excess, weapons-grade plutonium than it did for the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

Four weapons — the Trinity plutonium implosion device tested in the New Mexico desert; the Little Boy uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima; the Fat Man plutonium bomb that hit Nagasaki, and an unused uranium bomb — were produced within six years in current dollars of some $24.1 billion, according to Stephen Schwartz’s book, “Atomic Audit.”

In comparison, it will cost more than $24.2 billion and take until 2036 for the United States to get rid of those 37.5 tons of plutonium, according to a Government Accountability Office estimate.

It appears in the Senate Armed Services report on the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill.

Costs have skyrocketed for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina.

The facility is designed to blend the surplus plutonium with uranium oxide to make mixed oxide (MOX) that can be used as fuel in some U.S. commercial reactors.

That would make the plutonium unusable for future nuclear weapons.

When the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) originated this MOX program in 2002, design and construction were to cost $1 billion.

By 2005, the estimate was $3.5 billion.

When project construction began in 2007, it was three years behind schedule with a $4.8 billion price tag.

According to NNSA’s fiscal 2014 budget request, construction will hit almost $7.8 billion.

The annual cost to run the facility has also exploded. NNSA estimated in 2002 that it would cost $100.5 million a year to operate the MOX plant. Annual operating costs are now expected to be $543 million.

The planned 2017 completion date has slipped another two years, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Here’s another ticking time bomb.

A federal facilities agreement in 2002 with South Carolina called for Washington to pay up to $100 million a year to the state if the plant did not produce 1 ton of MOX fuel annually, starting in 2009.

That was to compensate the state for the storage of excess plutonium.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, a main project booster, has used amendments to delay the fines until 2016, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity.

The cost prompted the White House to propose slowing construction while it reviews the MOX program, including assessing other ways to get rid of the plutonium.

At an April 23 Armed Services subcommittee hearing, Graham said: “I will not entertain for one minute a disposition plan other than MOX. . . . We’re halfway through; there is no other way to do it.”

A day later, at an Appropriations subcommittee hearing, he said he would work with the contractor to reduce the construction price to $6.2 billion.

The removal of the 37.5 tons of plutonium will prevent roughly 700 warheads being built with that material, Graham said. Since it is part of a 1998 agreement with the Russians, they, too, will make an equal amount of plutonium unusable for weapons by 2018.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is drawing up a verification agreement with Washington and Moscow for the plutonium program.

In addition, the United States has pledged to pay $400 million of the Russian costs, but only after 2018, when disposition has begun there.

Of course, the MOX plant is a small part of the problem facing the U.S. as it tries to clean up after its weapons programs, which began with the Manhattan Project.

The Hanford Nuclear Site, a remote 1,500-sq.-km facility in south-central Washington state, was begun in 1943 and grew to be a secret facility with 50,000 workers for production of plutonium with two separate facilities and three reactors.

They became operational less than two years after construction began.

Eventually, nine nuclear production reactors were built along the Columbia River, together with some 177 underground waste storage tanks.

At one time, the tanks held about 212 million liters of high-level radioactive waste, 708,000 cu. meters of solid radioactive waste and 518 sq. km of contaminated groundwater beneath the site.

Everyone agrees Hanford is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, and it’s the focus of the nation’s largest environmental cleanup.

To handle treatment of the millions of liters of highly radioactive liquid waste, much of which dates to the 1940s, the Energy Department decided in 2000 to build a waste treatment and immobilization plant.

The cost was estimated at $4.3 billion with a 2011 completion date.

A December 2012 GAO audit said the cost has tripled, to $13.4 billion. Completion is not expected until 2019.

Sound familiar? A report by CBS News last month said that about $40 billion has been spent to clean up Hanford so far, and it could cost an additional $115 billion.

Multibillion-dollar cleanups are going on at other former nuclear weapon sites around the country.

It is worth remembering that the first nuclear test shot, Trinity, was planned for July 4, 1945, but had to be postponed.

On June 14, Robert Oppenheimer moved it back at least nine days, and it finally took place July 16.

Think of the mixed feelings that would exist if July 4 marked America’s independence and its initiation of the nuclear age.