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Budget Cutters Eye Nuclear Reprocessing Plant

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Hobson said his efforts to kill funding for the MOX project were thwarted by the political clout of South Carolina lawmakers.

Given the threat of sequester, supporters of a $4.8 billion mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility worry that the Obama administration may be targeting the troubled nuclear reprocessing project in South Carolina for budget cuts.

The MOX project — created to fulfill an arms reduction agreement with Russia by turning 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors — is in its sixth year of construction and over budget by as much as $2 billion.

It isn’t expected to be completed by its 2016 target date, and the Energy Department has found little interest from commercial power plant operators in buying the fuel, which would require costly reactor modifications.

The Office of Management and Budget has been eyeing the project as a place to save money. And Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, has asked the Energy Department to provide updated costs figures by Feb. 15.

At the request of House appropriators, the Government Accountability Office also is reviewing the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Plutonium Disposition Program, which comprises the MOX facility and associated buildings.

The scrutiny is raising concern among the project’s supporters, especially with across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in next month unless Congress acts to postpone them or enact an alternative austerity plan.

“We must stay the course and create a pathway to safely and responsibly dispose of weapons grade plutonium,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., wrote in a letter he has been circulating among his colleagues that would urge the White House to preserve the project. “If we fail to uphold our end of this agreement, dire consequences could be felt by our close allies across the globe, as Russia may choose not to honor its end of the agreement.”

The MOX facility has survived earlier challenges. Former Rep. David L. Hobson, R-Ohio, said his efforts to kill funding for the project when he served as Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee chairman were thwarted by the political clout of South Carolina lawmakers — including fiscal conservatives such as Wilson, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Sen. Jim DeMint.

Hobson described the project as a jobs program for South Carolina. In addition to the 2,600 employees now working on it, the completed facility will require permanent workers to operate it for up to two decades. The plant is part of the larger Savannah River Site in South Carolina, an Energy Department-managed site that employs 12,000.

Hobson said one of the biggest regrets of his tenure was agreeing to back off efforts to end the project when he was told they could hurt Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s re-election chances in 2006.

“I got rolled,” Hobson said.

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