Washington, D.C., March 5, 2014 – The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which the White House rolled out yesterday, would stop funding for the project at the Savannah River weapons site to combined weapons-grade plutonium with uranium to produce a mixed-oxide (MOX) civilian reactor fuel.
As I reported late last month, the administration reached a decision to stop further funding for the project in the face of enormous cost escalations. A report from the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional watchdog agency, suggested that the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has no clue about the cause of the capital cost overruns for the plant or how to get them under control. DOE estimated the capital cost at $1.6 billion in 2000 and now says will take at least $7.7 billion to complete, and will eat $30 billion over the 20-year life of the plant.
“Following a year-long review of the plutonium disposition program, the budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina into cold-standby,” the Office of Management and Budget said in the fiscal 2015 budget plan. “NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) is evaluating alternative plutonium disposition technologies to MOX that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost-effectively.”
The South Carolina Republican delegation in Congress is likely to push to continue funding for the project, which is a generator of construction jobs. In particular, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) will try to keep funding in the budget. He’s in a tight primary fight for the Republican nomination for this year’s election cycle.
But it will be an uphill battle, as the House Appropriations Committee appears to be willing to stop funding for the project. The highly-critical GAO report was the result of a request from the Republican and Democratic leadership of the Appropriations Committee’s energy and water subcommittee. Opponents of the MOX project will portray it as a classic example of pork-barrel spending that serves no real national purpose but satisfies local political needs.
Areva, a partner with Shaw in building the MOX plant, put out a statement decrying the administration’s plans. “The president’s FY15 budget request for the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility proposes placing the project on ‘cold-standby,’ a funding euphemism for terminating the project,” said Areva. “The insufficient budget proposal and policy direction for the MOX Project hamstrings the achievement of this critical nuclear weapon nonproliferation mission and fulfillment of our signed agreement with Russia.” The MOX project is a result of a 2000 agreement between the U.S. and Russian in which each country would render 34 metric tonnes of weapons grade plutonium in inventory useless.
Tom Clements, an advisor to the Sierra Club’s South Carolina chapter, commented, “This move by DOE is welcome as the MOX program is unsustainable due to run-away costs and the shutdown of the project must be carried out quickly while DOE immediately initiates options to dispose of plutonium as waste. This is only a request but if it goes through MOX is dead.”