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Laura Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has called for an end to the project, said conservative Republicans who otherwise might be expected to complain about cost overruns are deterred by the support it enjoys from Graham. And Hobson said DeMint — a leading champion of small government and spending cuts who now heads The Heritage Foundation — never suggested killing the MOX program.
“This is worse than earmarks,” Hobson said. “This is appalling.”
Neither Graham’s nor DeMint’s staffs responded to requests to comment on the project, but Wilson and other supporters say it is vital to fulfilling the 2000 arms deal with Russia. Failing to move ahead with the program, Wilson warned, could lead the Russians not to honor its end of the agreement.
But critics say MOX is the most expensive way to dispose of the plutonium. The waste could more cheaply be vitrified, basically turned into glass or mixed with another material and stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Hobson said he met with the Russians at the beginning of the project and learned they were not even considering using MOX technology because they considered it outdated. Russia instead is using fast reactors to burn the plutonium.
“There is no national reason to do this,” Hobson said.
In addition to questioning the need for the facility, critics also have concerns about the manner in which the National Nuclear Security Administration has managed the process.
“With considerable investments already made, the NNSA must show leadership and prove it has not undertaken an expensive and wasteful program which will ultimately produce a fuel that industry does not want or that presents unnecessary risks that exceed any nonproliferation benefits,” House appropriators wrote in their fiscal 2012 committee report.
Senate appropriators have also criticized the project’s management. In their fiscal 2013 committee report, they questioned why the NNSA spent $700 million over the past 13 years to design a plutonium disposition facility for the MOX project at Savannah River — only to terminate the project and decide that existing facilities could meet mission requirements.
House and Senate appropriators also are concerned about the expected operating costs for the plant, which have risen to an estimated $499 million a year from $156 million.
“We can’t afford that kind of stuff in today’s world,” Hobson said. “The budget hawks ought to be looking at this stuff. This is where there is real government waste.”