The U.S. Department of Energy plans to abandon construction of a multi-billion dollar nuclear fuel factory at the Savannah River Site as costs rise and questions abound over the need for the facility.
In the DOE’s budget proposal for next year, the department says the mixed oxide fuel factory will be “terminated’’ beginning in fiscal year 2017, which starts in October. Budget documents show that as many as 1,250 jobs could be cut.
Tuesday’s budget plan sparked an outcry among many South Carolina leaders, who favor building the factory, and a lawsuit by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The plant is now about 70 percent complete and billions of dollars over budget. In 2002, then-president George W. Bush committed $3.8 billion for the mixed oxide fuel project. But today, the project is expected to cost at least $5 billion to construct and up to $1 billion annually to operate..
The mixed oxide fuel factory, viewed by boosters as an important and jobs-rich mission for SRS, was intended to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into atomic fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. Building the MOX factory is part of a 2000 agreement between the U.S. and Russia, in which each country would neutralize 34 metric tons of plutonium so the material could not be used again for nuclear bombs.
Anti-nuclear activists applauded the plan to halt the MOX plant construction Tuesday, contending that conversion of weapons grade plutonium to nuclear fuel at SRS is too dangerous. The DOE has been signaling for months it might halt the MOX program. In place of MOX, the Energy Department plans to dilute some of the plutonium already stockpiled at SRS and ship it to a disposal site in New Mexico.
“DOE is to be congratulated for admitting the reality that the MOX project is not financially or technically viable and must be terminated,” said Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch. “Termination is the only option for MOX as there is no viable path forward for the project from a financial or technical perspective.”
But South Carolina leaders who see the plant as a source of jobs were upset — and a healthy battle over the Obama administration’s proposal looms.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district contains the Savannah River Site, called the decision to terminate the project “counterproductive and shortsighted.” He said plutonium shipped to SRS from nuclear sites around the country could be stranded there if the MOX factory isn’t built.
The mixed oxide project “is the only viable method for eliminating plutonium at this time,” Wilson said in a statement, adding that closing the plant would “make South Carolina a de facto permanent repository for nuclear waste.”
Wilson led a congressional visit to the facility in January and testified in front of a congressional budget committee last week asking for continued support for the site.
According to the Department of Energy’s budget proposal, some funding would continue for the MOX plant for the short-term. But eventually, that would be cut and jobs would be eliminated. Budget documents examined by The State newspaper show 500 craft jobs and 750 salaried positions would eventually be cut.
Congressional leaders said they are concerned that scrapping the MOX plant could hurt nuclear non-proliferation objectives.
“The reality of it is that without the MOX facility we cannot honor our agreement with the Russians,’’ U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. R-S.C., told McClatchy on Tuesday
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said abandoning the project without another plan in place was “reckless, ill-conceived and dangerous,” and warned that it would have serious repercussions for the U.S.-Russia agreement.
“As we have seen firsthand from their dealings with the Iranians, negotiating with a tough adversary is not a strong suit of the Obama administration,” Graham said. “Now is not the time to change course and have the Obama administration try to renegotiate anything with the Russians. It will not end well for U.S. interests. One can only imagine what the Russians will ask for in return.”
Andrew Koch, senior vice president for defense and homeland security at Scribe Strategies, a Washington-based public relations and lobbying firm, said abandoning the MOX plant would not be viewed favorably by the Russians.
“To secure their consent we would probably have to give on other issues like the tight inspections — and that would be really damaging, because at the end of the day this agreement is about making sure the Russians destroy their plutonium and don’t recycle it or leave it around unsecured,”
“Change the disposal method and either the Russians would have to agree to it, or the agreement would be null and void,” he said in an interview.
Clements, of Savannah River Site Watch, said he doubts the Russians will care what method is used to dispose of plutonium as long as the material is altered to prevent its use in atomic weapons.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Wilson, the son of U.S. Rep. Wilson, filed suit Tuesday in federal court at the request of Gov. Nikki Haley. Wilson also sued two years ago to keep the project going, but dropped the case after the DOE backed away from plans to cut funding.
Haley, also a booster of the MOX plant, had previously threatened to sue the Department of Energy for its failure to meet a Jan. 1 deadline to begin removing the plutonium from the state if the plant wasn’t built. She asked Wilson to take legal steps and collect a $1 million daily fine, spelled out in federal law, because the plant is not completed.
“The federal government has a responsibility to follow through with its promises’’ Wilson said in a news release. “The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the state of South Carolina and, frankly, the rule of law. The federal government is not free to flout the law. This behavior will not be tolerated.”
Ed Lyman, a nuclear issues expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said the lawsuit is a waste of time. One plan under consideration by the Obama administration is “down-blending’’ plutonium that has been brought to SRS. Instead of making it into MOX fuel, the material would diluted and shipped to a disposal site in New Mexico.
“The `Dilute and Dispose' option would enable the U.S. to begin removing plutonium from South Carolina decades earlier than the MOX fuel option,” said Francie Israeli, a National Nuclear Security Administration press spokeswoman.
In December, the DOE offered the plan to send six metric tons of plutonium now at SRS to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. SRS now is known to have about 13 metric tons of plutonium.
“Trying to tie this up in a lawsuit is just going to delay the inevitable,’’ Lyman said. “The state should take a fair look at the alternatives and also the good of the country as a whole. What the administration is proposing will have benefits to the state and the country.’’