COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina leaders who support a multibillion-dollar nuclear fuel plant near Aiken celebrated news Tuesday that work on the partially constructed plant won’t be halted for at least the next six months by the U.S. Department of Energy.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told South Carolina’s congressional leaders that work will continue through the federal fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 — an assurance that officials said will protect jobs at the mixed oxide fuel factory.
Including construction workers, the factory employs about 1,500 people at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex. Construction began in 2007 and the plant, known as the MOX project, is about 60 percent complete.
While the DOE has given no indication it won’t follow through with plans to eventually stop construction, the six-month reprieve gives the state’s congressional delegation time to study how to save a project that has seen costs soar.
It also could lead the state to drop all or part of a lawsuit against the DOE over federal plans to abandon the project. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office is talking with the U.S. Department of Justice about the announcement’s impact on the lawsuit, spokesman Mark Powell said.
Moniz told Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both of South Carolina, about his plans Monday night. U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Joe Wilson, R-S.C, also heard from Moniz.
“I thank the secretary for reversing course,” Graham said in a statement Tuesday. “This is the right decision for the program, the site, and the employees working on the program at SRS.”
Clyburn praised the decision by Moniz to continue construction through the fiscal year.
“This should allow all of us ample time to develop a way forward that would enhance our national security interests and benefit our state economically,” Clyburn said. “I am pleased that the administration has responded swiftly to concerns I raised over plans to place the facility into ‘cold standby.’ I look forward to working with DOE and my colleagues in Congress on ways to ensure the MOX program’s continuity and viability.”
The Energy Department wants to put the plant, which is behind schedule, on “cold standby” because of rising costs. South Carolina’s suit against the federal government says the administration is reneging on a commitment to build the plant.
Construction costs have reached an estimated $10 billion for the MOX factory. The plant originally was supposed to cost less than $5 billion. Including operating costs, the mixed oxide fuel plant could cost about $30 billion, according to recent estimates.
The plant is being developed to turn surplus weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants, but so far, the facility hasn’t enticed any utilities to take the plutonium-blended fuel.
Boosters say the plant will help the economy, but also allow the U.S. to fulfill the terms of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Russia. Both countries have agreed to get rid of 34 metric tons of bomb-grade plutonium.
Graham said he’ll fight to make sure the plant is completed.
“In the short term, this decision will save thousands of jobs,” Graham said. “However, there is still a long, arduous fight ahead. The secretary’s announcement does not change the fact the president’s (fiscal year 2015) budget submission to Congress places the MOX program in cold standby.”
MOX-plant critic Tom Clements said Moniz’s comments to Graham appear to be a concession for the short term, but that doesn’t change the administration’s long-term stance toward the project, which Clements says is too expensive. Environmentalists say making plutonium blended fuel is both dangerous and expensive.
“It looks like they will continue through Sept. 30, but after that, I think action would be immediate to issue a stop-work order,” said Clements, an environmentalist who heads Savannah River Site Watch.
Costs of the MOX plant have risen because the federal government began working on the project before the design was finished, then ordered changes, the New York Times reported this week.