How is the Nuclear Industry Evading the Long Arm of the Sequester?

SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices Director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.

In April, I returned to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s annual DC Days event. I joined activists from all over the country who actively work to increase the safety, transparency, and accountability of the nuclear energy industry and nuclear weapons complex. Every year, I learn something new. The nugget I gleaned this year has to do with the oft-discussed sequester and the seldom discussed nuclear-related line items in the federal budget.

While everyone these days seems to decry government spending, few people seem to realize that spending on nuclear energy programs is increasing. Two noteworthy examples of nuclear pork that impact the Southeast are small modular reactors (SMRs) and plutonium bomb fuel, or mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). SMRs have recently earned a line item of over $450 million from the Department of Energy (DOE), given to companies designing these experimental reactors. This taxpayer boondoggle  earned DOE the “Golden Fleece” award this year from Taxpayers for Common Sense. The first proposal is for SMRs designed by Babcock & Wilcox at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s long-abandoned, failed Clinch River breeder reactor site in Tennessee. You can read more about the dangers of SMR’s on our Learn About page.

Plutonium bomb fuel or MOX is one of the many places that the nuclear energy and weapons complex intersect. The program was proposed as a way to “de-weaponize” surplus plutonium from retired nuclear bombs. While this may sound like a noble cause, plans to create experimental fuel for nuclear reactors from this weapons-grade plutonium are ill-conceived, dangerous and very expensive. Take for example the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility that is currently under construction at the Department of Energy’s sprawling Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina. Original cost estimates for facility construction were $1.6 billion with operation beginning in 2007. Current cost estimates are $7.7 billion with facility operation in 2019. That is a seven-fold increase in cost and a 12 year delay! Any private project would likely have been cancelled by now, but it would seem normal business practices don’t apply when U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for the skyrocketing costs.

All of this taxpayer money supports a program designed to supposedly get rid of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, yet it actually increases nuclear proliferation risks and doesn’t really get rid of the plutonium. It just creates a different type of fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors, for which no utility has yet agreed to use, along with a slew of other fatally radioactive materials. Read more about some of the concerns here.

Nuclear energy has received 4 times what all renewable energies have been awarded.

Nuclear energy programs have enjoyed preferential treatment from our government since it started investing research and development (R & D) funds more than half a century ago. In fact, as you can see by these charts, nuclear energy has gotten nearly half of all funds, and twice as much as all renewable energies and efficiency technologies combined. Despite that, the industry still externalizes the cost of dealing with nuclear waste and decommissioning aged nuclear power plants and relies on government subsidies, loan guarantees from the government and state-level advance cost recovery schemes to fund new reactor projects because investors understand they are a financial risk. This creates a rotten deal for many, including consumers, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and small business owners.

Contrary to stated national goals of supporting “free-markets,” this chart clearly shows that our government has favorites and is willing to throw big money behind pet projects. Certainly, if actual goals were to create and ensure a clean, safe and affordable energy future, renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency would be getting more of that funding.

Instead, decision makers continue to throw good money after bad. It is past time for our leaders in Washington, with encouragement from all of us, to reevaluate our (failed) national energy policy and figure out how it can better support the much needed and long overdue transition into a clean, safe energy future that will truly offer hope and opportunities for existing and future generations.

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“Contrary to stated national goals of supporting “free-markets,” this chart clearly shows that our government has favorites and is willing to throw big money behind pet projects. Certainly, if actual goals were to create and ensure a clean, safe and affordable energy future, renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency would be getting more of that funding.”

The spin on this is a little different when you look at the energy problem from the standpoint of the engineering and physics community, I’ll tell you that as a physicist and engineer as well as a young employee of the DOE at LANL. Words like renewable are thrown out the window, first of all, and replaced with resource abundance, ie what timescale we can rely on the source. Then you work a lot with phrases like “CO2 offset per kilowatt-hour”, “capacity factor”, and “cents per kilowatt-hour”, and most importantly “CO2 offset per cent”. “Danger” becomes translated into words like “costs”, “engineered safety systems”, “administrative controls”, and “Occupational Health and Safety Association Document Number ###”. Its one viewpoint to criticize the funding priorities of the Department of Energy as a layperson, its another to criticize them as a young energy entrepreneur, physics, and engineer, completely blown away from the DOE’s prioritization of fusion research over fission, as China and Russia actively acquire the most advanced and powerful clean energy technologies in the world through powerful authoritarian support. Their greatest assets will be their nuclear technologies. Especially when they begin to apply them to water desalination.

Comment by Jose Ortiz on May 28, 2013 5:39 pm

20% of the USA would have no power if it were not for nuclear power. Imagine 20% of the country in the dark. In 20 years or less, without new nuclear plants, we will have that situation. There is currently no technology that can replace that 20% baseload. No matter how much is spent on solar or wind. You are a little late on the MOX project, it WAS stopped by the sequester. I know because I was working on a very small part of it, until it got stopped. The project to get rid of the plutonium was an international agreement with Russia, they are keeping their part of the deal. We are not keeping our end of the agreement by stopping MOX. It is less dangerous to get rid of the material this way than keep it sitting around, ‘secured’.
The SMR is a great idea and hopefully will be successful. Being able to build smaller less costly plants can make it more affordable, and being able to add on more capacity later as needed is great too. Something has to replace that 20% baseload of electricity. It won’t be solar or wind.

Comment by Larry on May 28, 2013 10:18 pm

Thanks for your comment Larry, but it ignores reality.

In states like Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, wind energy already makes up more than 20% of those states’ electricity – more than nuclear in any of those states. Renewable energy also provides more electricity than nuclear power in both Texas and California.

The Department of Energy published a report in 2008 that noted that the US could easily get 20% of its electricity from wind energy by 2030.

A new report from the National Renewable Energy Lab showed how the United States could get 80% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2050. Under this scenario, nuclear would only provide about 6-8% of our electricity.

Comment by Simon Mahan on May 29, 2013 10:59 am

It’s so easy to say continue with the plutonium fuel (MOX) program, but that ignores costs and that cheaper options exist. I calculate that there is about $22 billion left to be spent on the overall MOX program, if a user of the MOX fuel can be found (which is in doubt). The shortfall in the MOX budget is over $500 million/year for Fiscal Years 2015-2018 and the estimate for MOX plant operation, if it can overcome design problems and start up, is a startling $543 million/year, according to DOE. It is incumbent for those advocating MOX to say where these large amounts of money will come from. Senator Lindsey Graham has been fighting to save the troubled MOX program but so far he’s said nothing about where all the money will come from. Nor does he seem to realize that the US-Russia plutonium disposition agreement – not a treaty – can be changed by agreement in writing, which would allow for the much cheaper option of disposing of plutonium as waste (as has already been done with many tons of US surplus plutonium).

Comment by Tom Clements on May 29, 2013 8:33 pm

To the comment from Simon on May 29th.
No, North Dakota does not get more then 20% from wind.

Also, for the comments about how MOX is over priced and why is our government paying for it; wind energy gets subsidies, more than MOX’s cost.
“In addition to the direct cost to taxpayers, there is an outstanding obligation of approximately $10 billion for projects built during the past decade. Under the renewable energy bailout of 2011, there could be an additional $20 billion liability due to eligible wind projects—another burden taxpayers will bear.”

Long story short, energy companies do whatever they need to do to make money. If wind was something that would make them more money they would do it. They do not have a special attachment to nuclear, coal, or anything; besides what makes them money. If they choose to do SMRs it will be because it works out for them.

P.S. MOX is not closed or stopped. They just got about 1/2 of their funding so they are cutting back.

Comment by Kevin on June 6, 2013 9:54 am

Hey Kevin,
My apologies, I had recalled incorrectly that both of the Dakotas have hit the 20% mark. North Dakota now gets about 14% of its electricity from wind – about the same as Minnesota.

Yes, wind farms can get a tax credit – as most other sources of energy production receive subsidies. Last year, wind energy was the most installed energy resource in the country – 13 gigawatts worth – so we’re not just throwing money down a hole, we’re getting real power generation in return.

Alternatively, we’re subsidizing some energy resources (nuclear) without getting any additional power generation. Instead, nuclear plants are getting cancelled. Crystal River being a totally prime example here in the SE — ratepayers paid in advance for the upgrades, they failed, Duke cancelled and there’s no refund.

Comment by Simon Mahan on June 6, 2013 11:49 am

The MOX project at the Savannah River Site, for now, may only be pared down but it is in big trouble for many reasons: 1) there no no customers for any fuel that might come out of “MOX plant to nowhere,” 2) the costs are totally unsustainable, especially that rumor from DOE that the cost of the MOX plant construction is really more like $10 billion, 3) the $500+ million per year operating cost is all by itself a crippling expenditure on the entire DOE budget and is beyond the reach of a bankrupt government, 4) problems in transferring the design from France to the US may make the plant unworkable, 5) alternatives – disposing of plutonium as the waste is cheaper. But goes on because Senator MOX (Lindsey Graham) is protecting the interests of the French government-owned company AREVA, which is harvesting great sums of US taxpayer money.

Now that the chairman’s “mark” for Fiscal Year 2014 House defense authorization bill has language in it about exploring options to process foreign plutonium – from the UK?- in the MOX plant it’s easy to see how desperate and crazy this program is becoming. See the totally wacky language at – search for “MOX”: “Therefore, the committee directs the Administrator for Nuclear Security to study ways to achieve cost savings within the MOX program. This study should analyze potential additional international partners and the potential for achieving
greater economic efficiencies by designating additional supplies of surplus plutonium for disposition through the MOX facility. The completed study should be submitted to the congressional defense committees by April 1, 2014.” Import part of the UK’s 120-tonne stockpile of weapons-usable plutonium (which they don’t know what to do with) – no way!!!!

Comment by Tom Clements on June 6, 2013 11:49 am

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