SC leaders blast proposed funding cuts for SC's MOX plant

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 10, 2013 

— South Carolina leaders reacted angrily Wednesday to proposed funding cuts for the Savannah River Site’s main construction project, a $7.7 billion plutonium fuel recycling plant that promises more than 1,000 jobs as part of an international nuclear non-proliferation effort.

President Obama’s budget plan, released Wednesday, questions the need to build a mixed oxide fuel factory at SRS, while proposing cuts of about $117 million for the facility, commonly known as the MOX plant. Preliminary budget documents released Wednesday show the MOX project would be slowed down as construction costs are trimmed by about 25 percent in 2014.

The MOX construction cuts are part of a larger cut planned in the government’s fissile materials disposition program, which focuses on reducing excess nuclear weapons grade material. Overall, cuts to the program are about $200 million, budget documents show.

The budget process, however, still has a long way to go -- and MOX boosters already were preparing for a financial battle.

“I have deep concerns with the President’s budget proposal for the MOX program,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “The MOX program has been studied, evaluated, and restudied. The MOX plant has always been and will remain the best plan to dispose of weapons grade plutonium.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said the funding cut was “irresponsible.” He noted the arms agreement is a key reason to continue with MOX.

“The United States entered into an international agreement to dispose of these materials, and we need to uphold our end of it,” Scott said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, the Lexington Republican whose district includes the Savannah River Site, will fight for the MOX project, according to his office. Wilson’s office said the project already is 60 percent complete.

SRS is a 310-square mile nuclear weapons complex near the South Carolina-Georgia border outside Aiken. It was a major part of the nation’s Cold War weapons production effort, but it is now mostly in a cleanup mode and is looking for new missions.

The MOX project is part of the effort to bring new programs to SRS and comply with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Both the U.S. and Russia each have agreed to get rid of 34 metric tons of bomb-grade plutonium so that it can no longer be used for nuclear weapons. The MOX plant would turn plutonium from the U.S. into nuclear fuel for use at atomic power plants.

The MOX project, however, has been plagued with problems and is proving far more expensive than originally anticipated when the federal government announced a $3.8 billion commitment in 2002 to build the plant.

Today, the plant is as much as $3 billion over budget. The plant also is not expected to be complete until 2019 -- some three years beyond schedule. And the MOX plant has no commercial utilities to buy the plutonium fuel for use in atomic energy plants.

“This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable .... due to cost growth and fiscal pressure,” the White House said in a budget message Wednesday. The message went on to say the White House would look at possible alternatives to the MOX project as a way to get rid of surplus plutonium.

Scott and Wilson pointed out that the federal government must, by law, pay fines of $1 million a day for every day that the program goes past its deadline. But that deadline has been extended before and could be extended by Congress again.

Tom Clements, who has followed SRS issues for decades, said the U.S. could turn excess weapons grade plutonium into waste glass, which would be safer than operating a MOX plant. “It’s clear that the mismanaged MOX program has run head-on into fiscal realities and may be set for a phase out,” Clements said.

Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this story.

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