Remember your parents telling you that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is? Well, that principle applies equally to federal programs and clearance racks at discount stores. The difference is that, while consumers learn from buying a lemon, our government too often keeps spending in hopes of making lemonade.
Take the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Program (MOX). Based at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, MOX has remained a promise undelivered since its inception in the early 2000’s. Despite a continuously ballooning price tag and incessant construction delays, the government has rewarded MOX’s every failure with increased funding.
In the 2001 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, the United States and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium — enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons — by processing it in nuclear reactors to create energy. That’s how the MOX program got started. It blends plutonium with depleted uranium and turns it into something that can be fed into a normal nuclear reactor. Usable energy is created, and the byproducts of the reaction are no longer weapons-grade in terms of volatility. It sounds like a good deal: We can dispose of plutonium while simultaneously creating energy.
Unfortunately, the program hasn’t gone according to plan. Almost a decade behind schedule, the facility’s original estimated cost has tripled to nearly $5 billion. The estimated annual operation costs have more than doubled since just 2010 to nearly $500 million. With the plant expected to operate for 20 years, that’s at least $10 billion.
Then there’s the problem of what to do with the MOX fuel once it’s produced. Until 2008, the Department of Energy had a contract to provide Duke Energy with the fuel, but Duke let it expire, leaving the government without a buyer. While MOX fuel can be processed in most nuclear reactors, some retrofits are required since it burns hotter-than-normal fuel, speeding up wear and tear. These retrofits would be federally funded, of course, as would MOX sales, to make it economically desirable for the energy companies.
Think about it: That’s a $15-billion investment to create fuel that we’re going to have to bribe companies to take.
The MOX program’s shortcomings are so notorious that Congress finally called them out. In June, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 Energy and Water spending bill sponsored by Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) that transferred $17 million from the MOX program budget to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). It was a thoroughly justified gesture of dwindling faith in this failing project, but $17 million is a drop in the bucket for the MOX program. An even better deal for taxpayers would have redirected all of the money slated for MOX to pay down our outrageous debt.
Turning lemons into lemonade sounds appealing, but it’s pointless if no one wants to drink it. MOX has failed to prove itself viable on the open market, and there’s no need to waste taxpayer dollars on another research program when safer and more affordable plutonium disposal options already exist. It’s time to listen to our parents and cut our losses with this lemon.