A bipartisan group of South Carolina’s representatives in Washington wrote a letter Thursday asking the U.S. Energy Department’s top official to come see for himself what projected budget cuts to a plutonium reprocessing project could mean for the state.
“There is no question the lost jobs and economic activity in the region due to cuts to the MOX program will have significant and far-reaching consequences throughout all five impacted counties,” the signatories wrote.
The MOX, or mixed-oxide fuel, plant at the Savannah River Site near the South Carolina-Georgia border is part of an international nonproliferation effort, with the United States and Russia committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons each of weapons-grade plutonium to be turned into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. That amount, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
The Obama administration has slowed funding on the project, asking Congress earlier this year for $320 million in its 2014 budget – down more than 25 percent from 2012. In its budget request, the administration wrote that its high costs “may make the project unaffordable” and pledged to look for different ways to dispose of plutonium.
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The project, on which construction began in 2007, has undergone years of delays as its costs have continued to rise. The General Accountability Office says the project is more than three years behind its 2016 completion deadline and is also now going to cost $3 billion more than expected. The GAO said the project’s price tag had ballooned to $7.7 billion, citing design problems and issues with U.S. Department of Energy oversight as reasons.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has routinely given good marks to progress on the project. Shaw Areva MOX Services – the company contracted to build the plant – has said negotiations are underway with several utility companies interesting in buying the fuel, but none have officially signed on.
In June, contractors on the project received warnings that could be the precursors for hundreds of layoffs, job losses the signatories note could have wide-reaching economic effects on the surrounding area.
In the letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, both of the state’s senators and six of its seven congressmen cite newspaper reports projecting that 500 layoffs at MOX would cost five surrounding counties about $42 million in payroll. With that in mind, they wrote, they’d like Moniz to come see firsthand what is happening at the site.
“This visit will give you an opportunity to gain a better appreciation of not only the work being done at SRS but also the site’s significance to the surrounding communities, and provide vital insight to the administration as we work together to achieve appropriate funding levels to complete the mission at SRS,” they wrote.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott signed the letter, along with U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jim Clyburn and Tom Rice. All but Clyburn are Republicans. The name of U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, the state’s former Republican governor, did not appear, and a spokesman for his office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.