MOX facility

President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama have both sought to terminate the MOX program, including the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.

Will production of plutonium pits used in nuclear warheads shift from New Mexico to the Savannah River Site?

One nuclear watchdog group fears so, based on remarks made during a recent nuclear symposium in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

But other nuclear observers say discussion of pit production shifting to Aiken County's SRS is premature.

"This study is just commencing and it is premature to make assumptions on the use of existing or other facilities at SRS for the nation’s plutonium pit manufacturing needs," said Jim Marra, with Citizens for Nuclear Technology.

Plutonium pits also are at the core of a new debate concerning the Mixed Oxide, or MOX, fuel fabrication facility at SRS.

Akin to pits found in fruit, plutonium pits are metal spheres containing plutonium that are placed in the core of a nuclear weapon. The spheres detonate when compressed by explosives inside the warhead.

Currently, pits are built at the Los Alamos National Lab, or LANL, in New Mexico. LANL is the only U.S. facility certified for pit production, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, a semi-autonomous group within the U.S. Department of Energy.

Tom Clements, with the nuclear watchdog group Savannah River Site Watch, fears SRS is being eyed as a future pit production site, specifically the MOX facility.

Clements said evidence of that conclusion can be found in testimony an NNSA official gave during a recent Los Alamos nuclear symposium.

James McConnell, associate administrator for safety, infrastructure and operation with NNSA, said during the symposium that alternatives to Los Alamos are being reviewed.

"While we are currently in the middle of doing an analysis of alternatives to look at our plutonium hole, (the) current plutonium facility has no defined end of life," McConnell said.

When asked by a moderator about what the alternatives entail, the director didn't specifically rule out MOX.

"It can be satisfied through the existing facilities ... it can be satisfied by adding new facilities at Los Alamos," McConnell said. "Or it could be satisfied by adding capabilities or leveraging existing capabilities elsewhere in the country at other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used.

"All of those options are explicitly part of our analysis of alternatives," McConnell continued, noting that it's premature to identify what direction NNSA will ultimately follow.

That echoes the sentiments of CNTA.

"It is expected that this alternatives study will be conducted objectively and recommendations for siting the pit production capability will be made on sound safety, security, technical and economic bases," Marra said.

SRS Watch said it fears the Savannah River Site is being considered because plutonium has been used there, a criteria McConnell mentioned during the Los Alamos symposium.

The MOX facility is about 70 percent complete. It's purpose is to convert defense plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors.

But MOX has faced fiscal challenges in recent years. It's received bare bones funding in recent years, a trend continued in Congress' proposed budget for 2018.

President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama have both proposed shutting down MOX altogether, citing cost overruns into the billions of dollars.

Clements said SRS Watch still supports shutting down and repurposing MOX for diluting and disposing plutonium, but the group doesn't favor converting MOX into a pit production site.

“Finding alternative jobs for MOX workers is something we support as the project can’t continue to drag out for the main reason of being a jobs program but pit production for nuclear weapons is not a satisfactory alternative for jobs at SRS," Clements said.