The Federal Government's $10 Billion Plutonium Boondoggle

By Joseph Cirincione

As Republicans and Democrats squabble over the cost of student loans, both sides are wasting enormous sums on misguided nuclear schemes.

losalamos.banner.getty.jpg
Getty Images

While a national debate rages over whether to spend $6 billion to keep down interest rates on loans that students desperately need, the government may spend $10 billion to make plutonium bombs and plutonium fuel that nobody wants. Congress and the Administration are in a fierce contest to see who can throw the most money into the plutonium pit.

Some members of Congress are trying to restore billions in funding for a new factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to make plutonium cores for nuclear bombs that the military doesn't need. Meanwhile, President Obama is plowing ahead with plans to make plutonium fuel rods for power reactors that no power company wants to buy. Together, construction costs for these two radioactive white elephants add up to over $10 billion, and rising.

This is seriously wasteful spending at a time when we should be serious about fiscal responsibility and national security. Developing a nuclear strategy that is smart, efficient, and effective against current threats means cutting Cold War programs we no longer need.

PLUTONIUM PITS, MONEY PIT

The plutonium laboratory (sometimes called by its technical name, Chemical Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, or CMRR) is the worst kind of nuclear boondoggle. Expensive and unnecessary, it diverts funds from other vital programs. Yet some members of Congress are still fighting to fund it.

"[Plutonium] pit production enabled by CMRR-NF is not needed to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons for decades to come," said Bob Peurifoy, former vice president of Sandia Laboratories. "As a result, the Nuclear Facility might just sit there with nothing to do."

Many of the planned functions of this new plutonium laboratory -- plutonium pit storage, for example -- can be carried out at already existing facilities. One thing sets CMRR apart: It can increase production of plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, to 80 per year. Production on this scale is completely unnecessary. We already have more than 14,000 pits in storage. Those pits will last at least 85 years, according to National Nuclear Security Administration's own estimate.

For a project without a mission, the plutonium lab's price tag is unbelievably high. Costs have exploded, from less than $400 million in 2001 to close to $6 billion today. Maintenance costs are through the roof too -- almost $150 million per year, 15 times the costs of maintaining the old plutonium lab.

Pouring billions into an unnecessary program just doesn't make sense. President Obama recognized this; he eliminated funding for the plutonium lab for the next five years. Congress upheld this decision in the first round of the 2013 budget battle -- the House Appropriations Energy and Water Bill. But some members of Congress are trying to stuff CMRR back in the budget, claiming it is key to national security.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Investing in outdated Cold War weapons is fiscally irresponsible. It diverts resources from more important priorities.

FUEL TO NOWHERE

CMRR isn't the only white elephant in the nuclear budget. The plan to build a new facility for producing a dangerous nuclear fuel is equally wasteful.

In his speech at Hankuk University in South Korea, President Obama called his plan part of the "fuel cycle of the future." Plutonium fuel is not the fuel of the future. It is the failed fuel of the past.

This Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, a blend of plutonium and uranium, is dangerous and expensive. That's why no power companies in the United States want to buy it. Producing this fuel will weaken the global nonproliferation regime by developing a plutonium economy that will encourage plutonium production.

Despite all these concerns, the plan to build a multibillion dollar facility to produce plutonium fuel is charging ahead based on contracts and political commitments. The project, with construction costs skyrocketing to nearly $5 billion, was fully funded in the president's budget. This is exactly the wrong decision. As the new House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee's draft funding bill warns:

"There is still no fidelity on the total project costs and timeline to get the MOX facility up and running, and few details have been provided on the long term investments that will be needed to support full operating feedstock requirements. "

The committee cut the budget for the fuel plant but has allowed it to continue pending further reviews.

Funding for the plutonium fuel facility falls within the nuclear nonproliferation budget. That means that every dollar spent on unnecessary programs like MOX is one dollar less for vital nonproliferation programs that keep nuclear material and technology out of the hands of terrorists.

Getting serious about the fiscal crisis means getting serious about reining in wasteful nuclear spending. CMRR and the MOX fuel facility are dangerous, expensive, and contribute nothing to our national security. With more than 5,000 nuclear weapons, we don't need to invest in expanding our nuclear capabilities. We don't need a new government program forcing power companies to buy a fuel none of them want. We do need policymakers to stand up against nuclear pork and cut the waste in the nuclear budget.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/the-federal-governments-10-billion-plutonium-boondoggle/256470/