Legal action expected as feds seek MOX shutdown

sfretwell@thestate.comMarch 17, 2014 

South Carolina is expected to announce legal action this afternoon to save a plutonium fuel factory that is behind schedule and overbudget, but which state leaders say will help the economy at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex near Aiken.

Gov. Nikki Haley, Attorney General Alan Wilson and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R.- S.C., have scheduled a 1 p.m. news conference at the State House.

Rep. Wilson and Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott urged the governor last week to consider legal options and Haley later said she would fight for the plant.

The news conference comes on the heels of new cost estimates that the Obama administration says are making the project too expensive to afford.

The mixed oxide fuel plant would hit taxpayers with $30 billion in construction, operating and other costs if the project gears up — an amount the U.S. Department of Energy says is unaffordable, according to federal budget documents released over the weekend.

Federal officials have in the past been reluctant to provide total cost estimates for the MOX project. But one government estimate last year put the total cost at $24.2 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“Due to increases, with a total lifecycle cost of approximately $30 billion, the MOX fuel approach is not viable within the available resources,’’ according to the Energy Department’s 2015 budget request to Congress.

While overall cost comparisons remained elusive Monday, federal records show that construction costs have shot up. In 2002, President George Bush committed about $3.8 billion to MOX. Today, construction costs are expected to be $7.7 billion and federal officials are trying to determine why the price has risen.

Once completed, the MOX project is supposed to take 15 years to convert bomb-grade plutonium to mixed oxide fuel at the Savannah River Site weapons complex near Aiken. All told, about 34 metric tons of plutonium would be involved in the project.

The DOE’s plan to put the project on “cold standby’’ is being met with opposition from Republican leaders in South Carolina, where politicians say the state was promised the factory as a way to create jobs and get rid of bomb-grade plutonium.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a champion of the MOX program, has written U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to complain about plans to cut funding for the plant. Graham says the move will result in layoffs at the Savannah River Site, where the plant is being built, and jeopardize a program to reduce unneeded stockpiles of weapons grade plutonium. The MOX program is part of an international arms agreement with Russia, which like the U.S., has agreed to neutralize 34 metric tons of bomb-grade plutonium.

Graham’s office did not provide comments Monday, but released a recent letter he and six other senators wrote to Moniz saying “it does not make sense to stop construction of this facility at this time.’’ Thousands of jobs have been or will be created at the facility, federal officials have said.

Graham, Rep. Wilson and Scott also have written Gov. Nikki Haley, suggesting the state might sue to force completion of the 440,000-square-foot MOX plant. The plant is more than 60 percent complete. Its purpose is to produce plutonium-blended fuel for use in atomic power plants. Haley also expressed support for the plant last week.

But the program is years behind schedule and currently has no customer to obtain the plutonium-blended fuel that would be produced at the MOX plant.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ed Lyman, who has followed the MOX issue for years, said the plant was never a good idea.

Not only is it becoming increasingly expensive, but the plant would make a fuel that would have to be transported at public risk across highways to atomic power plants, he said. The government should have turned the material into waste, he said. That program, known as immobilization, was dropped more than a decade ago because the government said it was not affordable.

Critics also say that the Russian agreement could be amended if the United States wanted to dispose of plutonium in a different way.

“We just think immobilization would have been a more controlled process,’’ Lyman said. “There would be fewer opportunities for the material to be stolen. ‘’

Without a successful MOX program, however, South Carolina could be stuck with the plutonium that has been shipped to the state from other nuclear sites. At least 13 metric tons of the plutonium already are at the Savannah River Site from Hanford, Wash., Rocky Flats, Colo., and other sites, as well as from SRS, according to the S.C. Sierra Club.

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