Looking down from a helicopter Monday, Gov. Nikki Haley gained a new perspective on a partially finished nuclear fuel plant that once was envisioned as a way to rid the nation of deadly, weapons-grade atomic material.
But the view from high above didn’t change her mind about the need for the jobs-rich factory. Haley said the plant looked too near completion for the federal government to quit now.
Over budget and behind schedule, the mixed oxide fuel plant is on hold as the U.S. Department of Energy seeks other ways to neutralize plutonium, one of the main ingredients of nuclear bombs.
“I saw how much had been accomplished,’’ Haley told reporters. “Then you’re saying, ‘For nothing?’
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“You’ve made a very real investment. There is structure and everything there. And now they are just going to walk away from it. It really defies all logic.’’
The mixed oxide fuel plant, commonly referred to as the MOX project, is being constructed at the Savannah River Site atomic weapons complex near Aiken. It is about 60 percent complete.
Once projected to cost under $5 billion, the price tag has zoomed to an estimated $10 billion, just for construction. The entire lifecycle costs, including operating expenses, are expected to approach $30 billion, federal officials say.
President Obama’s administration recently put the project on “cold standby,’’ a term that means the project likely will be shuttered. The U.S. Department of Energy says the plant is too expensive and there may be other ways to eliminate the threat from weapons grade plutonium without building a mixed oxide fuel plant.
In South Carolina, however, Republican leaders who typically shun federal dollars say the government has made a commitment and should stick by it. That’s the message in a lawsuit Haley’s administration filed with Attorney General Alan Wilson last month against the DOE, seeking to force completion of the project. Haley says Obama is reneging on a promise to South Carolina.
During a news conference at SRS after her flight, Haley said she’ll press ahead with the legal challenge. The plant’s approximately 1,500 workers deserve the support, she said. Haley said the escalating cost of the MOX project “is not our problem’’ but a federal financial issue.
“This is a promise made to those people and it was a promise made to the state of South Carolina,’’ Haley said, noting that S.C. leaders are in “lockstep’’ in supporting the plant. “It’s only right that we turn around and we show D.C. you can’t break promises with the people of South Carolina.’’
Haley said she’s made her points to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who she said has been cordial but is an employee of an administration that doesn’t find value in the MOX plant. He’s expected to visit SRS soon, she said.
Longtime MOX critic Tom Clements, who heads the environmental group Savannah River Site Watch, said the project should be scrapped because it is so expensive. About $5 billion has been spent so far, leaving the bulk of the cost of the plant and operations still to be paid for, he said. By some estimates, the plant was to have been completed in 2009, but recent projections show that date now to be 2018 at the earliest.
“Gov. Haley and the other politicians in support of the MOX program simply refuse to say where the money is going to come from to pay for this,’’ Clements said. “The money is not there.’’
In addition to saving jobs, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other members of the state’s congressional delegation say finishing the MOX plant is vital to complying with an international arms agreement with Russia.
The 2000 accord requires both countries to neutralize 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium so the material could not be used to make bombs. In the U.S., leaders decided more than a decade ago to turn the plutonium into a fuel for use in atomic power plants. So far, the U.S. has no customer for the fuel, if and when it is made.
Federal officials recently told a congressional committee that the Russian agreement has been amended before to help the former Soviet Union with its disposal plans. As a result, Russia has expressed a willingness to accommodate the U.S. if it needs to make changes to the MOX program, said Anne Harrington, a deputy administrator with the National Nuclear Security Administration, in remarks to Congress April 3.
Haley’s visit to SRS included a tour of an adjacent research facility before the governor boarded a DOE helicopter to view the MOX plant and other parts of SRS from the air. She was accompanied by site operations manager Dave Moody, an official with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Haley said she favors more missions for the Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile weapons complex seeking to recover lost jobs. The site once employed about 25,000 people while producing nuclear-weapons material, but today has about 10,500 workers, many involved in environmental cleanup work.
While Haley’s visit occurred amid an ever-escalating dispute between the state and the federal government, it isn’t the first time the governments have clashed over the mixed oxide fuel plant.
In 2002, then-Gov. Jim Hodges sued the federal government for failing to provide an iron-clad legal agreement that the factory would be built and any plutonium brought to South Carolina would be processed and shipped out. At the time, Hodges threatened to lie down in the road to stop shipments of plutonium from Colorado to SRS. His legal challenge eventually failed to stop the shipments.
Today, some 13 metric tons of the 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium destined for SRS are on site and awaiting disposition.
Critics of the MOX plant, who say it is wasteful and dangerous to the environment, say the government could eventually ship most of the plutonium to a disposal area that is open in New Mexico.
But Haley and state Rep. Bill Hixon, R-Aiken, said they’re concerned about South Carolina being a permanent dumping ground for the material. The Obama administration already has canceled the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada, leaving the nation without a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste created at power plants and at SRS.
“We can’t keep this,’’ Haley said of the plutonium. “If they’re not going to finish the facility, they need to go ahead and take this. South Carolina is not going to be a dumping ground. We’re not going to allow that to happen.’’