After Donald Trump’s election and inauguration, construction industry representatives, and some politicians, began getting their hopes up that the new president would follow through on his statements urging big increases in infrastructure spending.
Those hopes extended to proponents of continuing and completing construction of the much-delayed, over-budget Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project, or MOX. The plutonium-disposition facility at the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., is being built to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, as per an agreement signed in 2000 between the United States and Russia.
Despite that purpose, the Obama administration had eyed the project for termination, due to schedule and budget problems. MOX construction originally began in 2009, with a cost estimate of $4 billion. Recent cost estimates range from the contractor’s nearly $10-billion total, to more than $17 billion. By either estimate, completion is more than 10 years away.
Not pleased with the Obama administration’s wavering commitment to the MOX method of plutonium disposition—which was mandated by the treaty—Russian President Vladimir Putin last October announced that Russia was suspending its participation in the agreement, known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA).
One project supporter, Nuclear Infrastructure Council executive director David Blee, hoped that situation could be reversed when he told ENR in March that the Trump administration represented “a chance for a reset on MOX and the Russians.”
And recently, Russia seemed hopeful that a Trump administration could get MOX back on track. In April, the Russian foreign affairs ministry noted in a statement: “Russia is willing to consider the resumption of the operation of the PMDA once the U.S. addresses the causes of the fundamental change of circumstances with regard to those that existed at the time of the conclusion of the Agreement, and if the U.S. follows the agreed method of disposition.”
MOX is that "agreed method of disposition."
However, Trump’s recently released budget proposal that zeroes out MOX funding dashes the hopes of project supporters.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R)—the MOX project’s most vocal proponent—is definitely not happy with President Trump’s decision to follow in Barack Obama’s footsteps on MOX. In a May 23 post to his official website, entitled “Trump Budget Continues Obama Administration’s Failed Approach to MOX,” the senator stated, in part:
“I was hoping the Trump Administration’s budget proposal would mark a clean break from Obama’s failed approach to MOX. Instead, it appears they are doubling-down. This budget proposal, much like the Obama Administration’s, embraces a process of ‘dilute and dispose’ for surplus weapons-grade plutonium. There are several shortcomings with this approach. First, it has already been considered. Second, it was rejected.
“The reasons were clear. It violates an important international non-proliferation agreement. It also doesn’t take into consideration the legislative and regulatory changes needed to store the excess material underground. And it fails to account for the political opposition, on both sides of the aisle, that is likely to occur and will undoubtedly result in extended delays. This plan will strand the material in place–which is unacceptable. The only option with a clear disposition path is MOX.”
Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists—a longtime opponent of the MOX project—cheered Trump’s budget action. Said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the UCS: ““The MOX fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site is a money pit. Cancelling the facility and disposing of our excess plutonium by diluting it and shipping it to a permanent repository will save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars—and it will be safer and more secure to boot. This is a great deal by any measure.”
Will Congressional Republicans again rally to maintain MOX funding, as they did previously? Or will they finally let the MOX project die? Stay tuned.