The political fight over MOX continues. For a couple of years now, the Obama administration has been continuing to position itself for a battle with Congress over its plans to halt construction of the much-delayed, over-budget Mixed-Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, once and for all. In 2014, the Dept. of Energy had sought to suspend construction on the project by placing it into “cold standby.” But Congress responded by keeping construction progressing by virtue of its appropriations requirements.
But on Feb. 9—nearly nine years after MOX construction first began—the budget proposal that President Obama sent to Congress confirmed the administration’s plans to terminate the multi-billion-dollar project at the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C. The much-delayed and over-budget project is being built to convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors, as mandated by an agreement between the United States and Russia.
South Carolina politicos had also been prepping for battle, apparently, and on the same day that President Obama unveiled his budget proposal, the state filed suit against the Dept. of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration, seeking to hold the federal government to its commitment of paying the state up to $100 million annually, a penalty that became applicable Jan. 1 as a result of the lack of any MOX production. Prior to the MOX project starting, DOE and South Carolina had agreed to the terms as reassurance for risks associated with the state beginning to receive the plutonium material, some of which is reportedly already being stored at the Savannah River Site. However, the terms of that agreement note the penalties are “subject to the availability of appropriations.”
In a statement accompanying the lawsuit, Attorney General Alan Wilson remarked: “The Federal Government has a responsibility to follow through with its promises. The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the state of South Carolina and, frankly, the rule of law. We are committed to using every legal avenue possible to ensure compliance.”
The Obama administration’s move to terminate the project comes after a 2015 DOE “red team report” cited estimates of continuing budget and schedule overruns in recommending diluting the radioactive material and storing it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the approach DOE is now endorsing.
As ENR reported last August, the report authors indicated this dilution and disposal (D&D) option could be done more quickly and with less risk than the MOX option. There’s at least one problem with that plan, though, the report noted: Following two accidents in 2014, WIPP is currently shut down. (As ENR reported last September, another DOE-commissioned report conducted by Aerospace Corp.—heavily criticized by project supporters—calculated that if project funding remained at its current level, it would require another $9.4 billion to finalize construction, with completion coming no earlier than 2043.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who remains among the most vocal critics of DOE’s handling of the MOX program, doesn’t see the agency’s D&D plan involving WIPP as credible. Noted Graham: “The Obama Administration refuses to face up to the reality that today there is no viable alternative to MOX. Simply scrapping the MOX program and not honoring the commitment made to South Carolina is a non-starter. If they have a better idea, one that is well-thought out and properly vetted, then they should bring it forward. Right now, they have nothing.”
Numerous officials have spoken out against the plan to abandon the MOX program, among them former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, as well as retired Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who commented in early February that shutting down the project would be “catastrophic.”
As Sen. Graham has noted about MOX—and other national politicians have remarked about other aspects of the president’s budget—it remains unlikely that Congress will let stand President Obama’s proposal to shutter the project. Last year, for instance, when DOE proposed putting MOX into “cold standby” status, Congress reacted by mandating that all funds appropriated for the project be spent on construction.
So the existential battle over MOX will continue, for now at least.