For a classic example of federal government incompetence coupled with Congressional irresponsibility, look no farther than the Department of Energy’s Savannah River weapons plant in South Carolina, 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga. DOE is reluctantly managing a financially disastrous project born to produce plutonium 239 and tritium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Those are now in excess of the needs of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
At the turn of the century, DOE began a project to turn excess weapons-grade plutonium on the site into a “mixed oxide” fuel, combining plutonium and fissile uranium into useable civilian reactor fuel. It was an attempt to turn swords into plowshares.
It has turned into a pork-barrel project, gturning taxpayer dollars into political bacon for South Carolina and Georgia politicians. The Savannah River MOX project siphons federal dollars into a make-work endeavor supplying high-paying jobs for contractor employees and hefty profits for DOE contractors, with nothing to show in benefits to the nation.
If the project were to succeed, it would produce outrageously expensive nuclear reactor fuel into a well-functioning market that has no need for MOX and no intent to pay premium prices for an unneeded product. In short, MOX is an economic loser. It makes no fiscal sense.
More than a year ago, in early 2014, the Obama administration said it would put the MOX project into “cold shutdown” in the fiscal year 2015 budget, a fiscally-conservative and prudent move on the part of the White House. The project has been stumbling, fumbling, and bumbling for over a decade.
Republicans in Congress, bowing to the South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations, kept about $350 million flowing to the project in the stop-gap continuing resolution that has kept the government running while the feckless solons tried to come up with real spending bills. That’s where the funding stands today.
Last week, Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz appearing in Aiken, Ga., scoped out the continuing costs of the project. He said that keeping the MOX project going would require $1 billion a year in federal funds. That’s a lot of money, three times the current, reduced, spending level. What he said next was more significant and frightening: that $1 billion in government spending annually would have to occur “for decades to get it done.” Decades. There’s a very scary proposition in a world of limited federal resources and many demands of much higher priority than unneeded and uneconomical nuclear reactor fuel.
As originally conceived, the MOX project was estimated to cost $1.1 billion. Those of us familiar with federal government estimates laughed at that figure. When construction began in 2007, the budget was $4.8 billion. As The Augusta Chronicle reported in April, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s latest estimate for the total cost of the Savannah River MOX factory is $47.5 billion.
Georgia and South Carolina’s Republican lawmakers – self-proclaimed conservative, small-government advocates all – have objected to that figure, as have the contractors on the Savannah River gravy train. They say it is too high, without offering any evidence to contradict the DOE assessment. Even at half that estimated price tag, the project is atrociously unaffordable. The delegation from the Savannah River site states wants to keep the project going, regardless of cost.
While the local advocates of the MOX fiasco put a positive spin on Moniz’s comments – hey, we can afford $1 billion a year – the energy secretary had the best assessment.
Moniz said, “Total costs will continue to escalate if the program is not fully funded each year.” Additionally, he observed, the plant’s technology becomes outdated the longer construction takes to complete. ‘It will be finished if the resources are substantially higher than they are now. Otherwise, it will never be finished,’ Moniz said.”
Well said. It will never be finished. It’s time to nix MOX.