U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was furious.
Last November, the South Carolina Republican had warned that his now-famous outburst during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing would pale in comparison to the rage he would inflict on the Trump administration if it shuttered a nuclear project in his home state.
“I intend to make their lives miserable,” Graham said at the time.
At a meeting at the White House a month earlier, as President Donald Trump looked on, Graham already had berated U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and National Nuclear Security Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, two officials leading the charge to stop the so-called MOX program.
Graham’s display prompted S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who was also at the meeting, to say the senator “ought to get an award.”
But as it turns out, neither Graham nor anyone else in South Carolina’s leadership ranks has been persuasive enough to prevent Trump from taking decisive action to end MOX — an over-budget federal program at the Savannah River Site in Aiken that was intended to convert plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.
Instead, the Trump administration is doubling down in an anti-MOX crusade set in motion by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Shortly after Graham’s White House meeting, the Energy Department issued MOX with a termination notice, followed by several rounds of layoffs. The administration reinforced its stance against the program in the president’s annual budget request to Congress, released this past week.
Meanwhile, S.C. leaders — once vociferous Republican critics of Obama for wanting to kill the MOX project — have grown subdued in their failure to sway a Republican president they have claimed as a political ally.
Now, in attempts to save political face, they blame the decision to terminate MOX on a perceived Obama-era bias lingering in Trump’s Energy Department. They also are trying to find a silver lining in the saga, holding onto hope the MOX project can be re-purposed as a facility to help build nuclear weapons.
Closing the program will result in the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. It will nullify 15 years, and billions of dollars, of work on a facility to support the unfinished MOX program. It will mark the collapse of yet another multi-billion-dollar nuclear project in South Carolina, following the 2017 abandonment of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion project in Fairfield County.
And then there’s the outstanding question of what South Carolina will do with the weapons-grade plutonium in storage at the Savannah River Site, waiting to be reprocessed once the MOX facility is complete.
If the MOX program shuts down before there’s a plan to move the plutonium out of the state, a situation could unfold where the stockpile of deadly material just sits in South Carolina forever.
‘The nation’s nuclear dumping ground’
The MOX program was the result of a 2000 pact between the United States and Russia. No longer locked in the “arms race” of the Cold War, the two nations agreed to each dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium — enough to create as many as 10,000 U.S. nuclear weapons.
The federal government decided it would get rid of the U.S. plutonium through a process known as mixed-oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX. It made plans to construct a facility to accomplish this task at the Savannah River Site, a 198 thousand-acre nuclear and research complex run by the Energy Department.
It wasn’t a unanimously popular decision. Then-Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat defeated for re-election in 2002, was so opposed he threatened to lie down on the highway to block the entry of plutonium shipments into the state. He said he feared the MOX program would not be completed in a timely fashion and Washington would “turn our state into the nation’s nuclear dumping ground.”
The project officially broke ground in 2007. Fifteen years later, construction is not yet complete, and Hodges’ prophecies look like they could be coming true.
MOX supporters say the project is 60 or 70 percent finished, while detractors put progress at closer to 30 percent. The program is also billions of dollars over budget — though there are disagreements, too, about the extent of cost overruns. Russia has also pulled out of the agreement.
James Marra, executive director of the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and a former Savannah River Site employee who supports MOX, said there might have been ways to foresee the unanticipated expenses and delays, from regulatory barriers to the need for special construction materials that had not been produced since the 1980s.
Obama’s energy department took note of the ballooning price tag and indefinite completion date and, in 2016, decided enough was enough: After several years of designating bare minimum funding, the administration proposed ending MOX to pursue a different approach to disposing of the plutonium.
The task fell on U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the third most senior member of House Democratic leadership, to use his “cache” with the Obama administration to keep MOX alive.
He argued on behalf of the delegation it wasn’t practical to stop construction midway through: “I was working every day trying to convince the administration not to cut the MOX budget.”
But Clyburn said last week he was no longer trying to save the MOX program. That task, he said, now fell to the Republicans who claim to have influence with Trump.
‘Not for lack of trying’
S.C. Republicans didn’t think they’d have to worry about MOX with a Republican president.
Trump campaigned on a promise to be the opposite of Obama, so people assumed he would support a program his predecessor opposed. Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, pledged to use his office to promote nuclear energy.
South Carolinians had friends in the administration. Mick Mulvaney, the incoming White House budget director who now serves as Trump’s acting chief of staff, supported MOX during his time as a U.S. congressman representing South Carolina’s 5th District. Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley had the president’s ear as his U.N. ambassador.
Some S.C. GOP leaders are friends with the president. Graham has a direct line to Trump as his golfing companion and staunch ally on Capitol Hill. McMaster enjoys access to Trump as the first statewide elected official to endorse him during the 2016 primary.
Last fall, during a gubernatorial debate, McMaster said he was in the best position to save MOX: “I can get in with the president and with Secretary Perry and others and bring my team ... I think when we (are) able to finally finish this fight, it will be approved.”
As it turned out, the Trump administration would not only take the same stance as Obama’s Department of Energy, but would go even further in taking steps to shut the program down.
Perry visited the Savannah River Site personally, more than once, but was not convinced the MOX program should be spared. Last September, Mulvaney reportedly told a group of South Carolina municipal leaders that “the numbers for MOX just don’t make sense.”
“I just have seen that the people within the administration were just not being as helpful as they should have been, at all,” U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district includes the Savannah River Site, recently complained.
In a statement at the time of Perry’s nomination to be energy secretary, Wilson expressed confidence that Perry would oversee completion of the MOX program.
While South Carolina Republicans have been shocked by the Trump administration’s posture on MOX, they also have been largely unapologetic for falling short in their efforts.
To quantify the extent of their efforts, McMaster’s office provided McClatchy with a list of 13 official actions the governor took to lay the groundwork for protecting MOX, taking place between March 2017 and the October 2018 White House meeting.
These actions include meetings in Washington with energy department officials, including Perry; phone calls with Mulvaney; confabs with other delegation members; and strategy sessions with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson about federal lawsuits the state filed over the issue.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said the delegation came up short but “not for lack of trying.” He said he had “at least a dozen conversations” with the energy department about how it was using an outdated formula for calculating the project’s price tag and target completion date.
He could not say why officials refused to consider using new numbers, only that “it’s more frustrating than words will allow me to stress.”
An energy department spokeswoman did not return requests for comment.
Delegation members also have been taking special care to aim their grievances at the Department of Energy rather than at Trump, whose political support they need back home.
For example, McMaster attributed his lack of success to what he described as a deep-rooted institutional bias within the energy department against MOX among the career staffers left over from the Obama era.
“This is a reflection of the bias against all things nuclear (during the Obama administration) that persists, I believe, in the Department of Energy today,” he said.
Wilson, who accused Obama in 2014 for “(choosing) to play politics with our nation’s nuclear nonproliferation strategy,” now says he is “grateful” for the Trump administration’s plans to convert the MOX mission into a “plutonium pit” production enterprise. Plutonium pits are the cores of nuclear weapons.
In praising the administration for supporting a pits production facility — which could help recoup many of the jobs lost in the MOX closure — elected officials are putting a positive spin on a disappointing outcome.
“We have an acknowledgment (from the Department of Energy) of the very important footprint that the Savannah River Site is ... for our nation’s nuclear future,” Scott said, adding that the plan to produce pits at the MOX site is “just fantastic.”
‘Get the shit out’
While South Carolina Republicans want to embrace the pit production concept, the endurance of their enthusiasm could depend on whether the administration can figure out a new location for most of the plutonium still in storage at the Savannah River Site.
The administration has proposed shipping the material to a facility in New Mexico to be dealt with through a process called “dilute and dispose.”
The problem is, members of the New Mexico congressional delegation don’t necessarily want the plutonium, arguing their state’s facility might not have the capacity to take the material.
Meanwhile, in belatedly keeping with the original terms of the 2000 MOX agreement to move one metric ton of plutonium out of South Carolina in the event the project was not finished by 2014, the Energy Department late last year secretly shipped half a ton from the S.C. stockpile to a storage facility in Nevada. The move enraged Nevada elected officials, who are now pursuing legal options for blocking future plutonium shipments.
McMaster thinks other states’ refusal to take South Carolina’s plutonium could be the MOX program’s saving grace.
“Our goal is to see the MOX facility fully funded or the plutonium taken out of South Carolina to an appropriate place — somewhere else, but not here,” said McMaster. “It may develop that the MOX process is the only answer.”
Meanwhile, Graham is still angry, and as of last week still promising to be a thorn in the side of the administration if it doesn’t come up with a plan soon about where to put the plutonium.
“Get the shit out,” he said of the plutonium. “Just get it out.”
So far, however, the loyal Trump ally is just talking tough.