WASHINGTON, Aug 27 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers should work with the Department of Energy to restructure a project to convert excess U.S. weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors instead of abandoning it, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said.
Richardson told Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in an Aug. 21 letter that switching to a different solution would be "reckless" since it would violate a 2000 nonprofileration treaty with Russia signed while he was energy secretary in the Clinton administration. A copy of the letter was seen by Reuters on Thursday.
"Abandoning our non-proliferation commitments is a very bad idea," Richardson told Reid. "The (treaty) is working, despite all the tensions in U.S.-Russian relations. Any non-MOX 'alternative' violates our landmark agreement."
He said the program needed a new cost baseline to account for expected increases, but halting it made no sense given the dearth of viable alternatives and the fact that a key facility being built in South Carolina was two-thirds complete.
He said the unfinished plant also employed nearly 2,000 highly paid and unionized workers trained especially for nuclear construction.
The battle over the project has heated up amid concerns the program's multibillion-dollar costs could balloon beyond current cost estimates.
Critics want to end the project after years of delays and cost increases, while proponents say the program is now back on track.
A recent report completed for DOE said the project could cost $30 billion to complete, but the prime contractor, a joint venture of U.S.-based Chicago Bridge & Iron NV and Areva SA, a French state-owned nuclear group, estimates it would cost $3.3 billion, on top of $4.5 billion already spent.
CBI-Areva is building the plant that would take 34 metric tons of U.S. plutonium - enough to power 17,0000 nuclear warheads - and mix it with uranium to form safer mix-oxide (MOX) fuel pellets for use in commercial nuclear reactors. Russia has its own program to eliminate 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Act of 2000, or PMDA.
Both sides have commissioned independent studies about the program. The government recently completed its own review, which said an alternate approach, which involves diluting plutonium and then storing it, would be half as expensive as the approach now under way.
Richardson said it was highly unlikely that a waste disposal facility in New Mexico would accept weapons-grade plutonium, as required for the alternate "dilute and dispose" approach. (Editing by Matthew Lewis)