The $7.7-billion MOX project at Savannah River Site (SRS) could go into "cold stand-by" status if President Obama's budget proposal becomes reality. With Congress still to review and approve next year's spending plans, that's not a done deal yet. But it definitely puts the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project in real danger of being mothballed.
Developed as part of an agreement between the United States and Russia to dispose of roughly 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by converting it into fuel, the the project in Aiken, S.C., began construction in 2007 with an original price tag of $4.8 billion, now $7.7 billion.
Aerial photo of the MOX project at the Savannah River Site. (Photo courtesy Shaw MOX Areva Services)
Additionally, the project's schedule has slid from its original target of 2016. Now, the contractor suggests the facility could be operational by November 2019, according to a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Moreover, the facility's long-term costs estimates have risen as well, with reports indicating a figure as high as $30 billion for operation and maintenance. And it's mainly for these escalated costs—some of which are related to the MOX method of transforming plutonium into fuel—that Obama is pushing for cancellation. The president's budget proposal says the project "is significantly more expensive than planned and it is not viable within the (fiscal year) 2015 funding levels,” the Augusta Chronicle reported.
Because of its history as part of an international agreement, however, the project has been viewed, by some at least, as absolutely necessary, despite the cost escalations. And one of the project's more vocal proponents is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). To this point, the senator asks in the video embedded below: "If we do something other than MOX, how can we meet our obligations under the treaty?" An answer to that question is not clear, apparently even to the Dept. of Energy.
Is Obama's proposal the death knell for MOX? It may prove to be, but politicians like Sen. Graham will certainly have something to say about it. The South Carolina senator's comment at the end of the video below seemingly assures that:
"I will not entertain for one minute a disposition plan other than MOX. We're halfway through. There is no other way to do it. We have an agreement with the Russians, and now is not the time to break that agreement..... So, when it comes to lowering costs, count me in. When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out."
This video shows a 2013 congressional hearing on MOX, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) questioning various government officials on their plans for the project.