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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.
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.”