Some things never seem to change, sometimes to the detriment of the U.S. taxpayer. Allowing parochial interests to trump national ones is a Washington tradition that lives on. Case in point: this spring, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) placed a “hold” on the nomination of Dr. Ernest Moniz, a well-respected MIT professor and former Undersecretary of Energy, to be the next head of the Department of Energy (DOE).
The hold didn’t hold and Moniz became the new energy secretary. But Graham’s reasoning was instructive.
The reason for his objections to Moniz? The senator is concerned about administration plans to reduce the budget request for the plutonium fuel program at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina known as MOX, for “mixed-oxide,” reactor fuel.
The MOX program began with noble purposes. It was a joint commitment by Russia and the United States to dispose of dozens of tons of weapons-grade plutonium from excess stocks at the end of the Cold War. The plan was to blend the plutonium with standard nuclear power plant fuel (low-enriched uranium) to create a “mixed oxide” (hence MOX) fuel for use in civilian power plants. Akin to the “Megatons to Megawatts” program that converted significant amounts of bomb-grade uranium for electricity, the MOX program hoped to do the same for plutonium. The goal was to derive benefits from some of the most deadly materials on the planet while simultaneously “de-weaponizing” it. Truly a “swords to plowshares” approach, right?
How MOX Fell Short of Its Potential
But the MOX program soon ran into the realities and complexities of implementing such a large, complex and unproven technology. Costs rose each year, milestones slipped and the “customers” for the product did not materialize—not one nuclear power plant utility signed up to take the fuel. Today, the MOX program is among a number of monuments to DOE mismanagement and cost escalation. Lucky for us, there are other ways to manage and secure the plutonium until we devise a better plan for dealing with the material.
But Senator Graham doesn’t see it that way. According to the Global Security Newswire, Graham said to Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “When it comes to lowering costs, count me in. When it comes to studying another way to do it, count me out.… We’re halfway through. There is no other way to do it.”
For its part, NNSA stated that the current budget environment demands that we “step back and review all available options.” Given its willingness to spend serious taxpayer dollars on seemingly dead-end projects in the past, when the NNSA sounds reasonable and cost-aware, we know something is truly up.
MOX has not realized its original purpose. There are alternatives to pursue. The time has come to stop throwing good money after bad. Dr. Moniz understands the science and policy implications of programs like MOX. If they allow him a fair and thorough hearing, the Senate will benefit. Moniz’s testimony could help the Senate make the right choice and jump off the rails that have kept the U.S. on the MOX train for far too long.
—Paul Carroll is responsible for managing grant making at the Ploughshares Fund, a non-governmental organization located in San Francisco and focused on weapons proliferation. Prior to joining the fund in 2000, Carroll worked at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.