Savannah River Site

Johnowen Lowe
June 24, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: View of the exterior of The Savannah River Site. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Savannah River Site, shown in Fig. 1, is a 310-square mile nuclear complex located near Aiken, South Carolina and run by the United States Department of Energy. It was originally built in the 1950s to refine nuclear materials into weapons-grade materials. The original role was supplemented in 2000 with the signing of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement between the United States and the Federation. In this agreement, the two countries agreed to reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium each country had available. [1] Several disposal methods were allowed. The United States chose to build a Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOF) at the Savannah River Site. This facility would convert weapons-grade plutonium into a lower-grade material suitable for a nuclear power plant. Construction on the MOF began in the early 2002, when then-President George W. Bush committed $3.8 billion to the project. [2] In early 2010, a protocol to the 2000 agreement was signed, updating various parts of the original contract in response to real-time events. [1]

Issues with MOF at the Savannah River Site

Weapons-grade plutonium can be downgraded in one of two manners: it can be modified into a mixed-oxide fuel or it can be, in essence, diluted and made into nuclear waste. This nuclear waste then needs to be packaged in containers and stored. [3] The goal of the original agreement was to convert the plutonium into reactor fuel, in line with the prevailing "swords to plowshares" notion of disarmament. However, there were significant construction delays, cost overruns, and poor project management at the Savannah River Site. Costs to finish construction are now estimated to cost anywhere between $5 billion and $12 billon. During the final years of the Obama administration, there were multiple discussions about cancelling the entire project. [2] Yet, each year, approximately $340 million has been allocated for continued construction. [4]

Russia Pulls Out of the 2000 Agreement

The timeline for completion of the MOF at the Savannah River Site is unknown, so the United States decided to begin converting some of the plutonium into nuclear waste. Upon hearing this, Vladimir Putin pulled the Russian Federation out of the 2000 agreement, citing the 2010 protocol stating that the plutonium was to be converted into nuclear fuel. A confounding factor in the decision may be the deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, although that was not stated in the decision. [5]


The South Carolina delegation to Congress is loathe to lose a project of such magnitude, and is consistently pushing for a renewal of funds for the project. However, with the agreement with Russia no longer in play and a new administration in the White House, the fate of the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site is undecided.

© Johnowen Lowe. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Horner, "Russia, U.S. Sign Plutonium Disposition Pact," Arms Control Today 40, May 2010, pp. 43-45.

[2]] V. Bergengruen and S. Fretwell, "Obama Plans to Scrap MOX Plant; SC Leaders Livid," The State, 9 Feb 16.

[3] J. Risen, "Half-Built Nuclear Fuel Plant in South Carolina Faces Test on Its Future," New York Times, 8 Feb 16.

[4] "House Authorizes Funding Bill for MOX Project," The Augusta Chronicle, 2 Dec 16.

[5] J. W. Phippen, "The Russian Retreat From a Post-Cold War Nuclear Deal," The Atlantic, 3 Oct 16.