Congress may spend another $345 million next year on a South Carolina facility designed to recycle weapons-grade plutonium, even as the federal Energy Department explores whether there are faster or cheaper alternatives.
The funding request for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, at Savannah River Site near Aiken was questioned by Senate appropriators at a hearing Wednesday on the fiscal 2016 federal budget.
The facility, over budget and behind schedule, will convert the plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. But the Obama administration and some members of Congress have raised questions about whether different technology should be considered before construction is finished.
“I don’t want to look back and say... well, $600 million has been wasted,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Obama’s attempt to put the MOX project into “cold standby” was derailed by Congress, meaning construction continues, at a cost of $345 million in fiscal 2015 and possibly another $345 million next year.
But the search for alternatives goes on.
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s administrator testified Wednesday that the first of two reports by outside experts is due in mid-April.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz said the first independent report will compare finishing the MOX fuel fabrication process to a different process that would dilute the plutonium until it’s not recoverable, then dispose of it in a special facility in New Mexico. A second report, due in September, will look at other possibilities.
“We’re hoping the external look, as requested by Congress, will give us a more solid grounding in terms of specific cost estimates associated with various alternatives,” Klotz said.
The MOX facility is more than three years behind schedule and at least $3 billion over budget. The Energy Department estimates the MOX will cost $30 billion to operate over its entire life, but that figure is disputed by MOX advocates in South Carolina.
Russia and the U.S. are each supposed to destroy 34 metric tons of plutonium as part of an international agreement.
“The goal of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium is certainly worthy, but the cost is enormous,” Feinstein said.
It’s not clear if the Senate Appropriations Committee will try to adjust the $345 million request for MOX when it drafts a fiscal 2016 spending bill for the Energy Department.
The MOX project has strong defenders on the committee, including GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham says the alternative disposal options would require renegotiating the deal with Russia and that abandoning MOX would violate an agreement between the federal government and South Carolina.
Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water included an update on the uranium processing facility to be built at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the subcommittee, said the National Nuclear Security Administration is requesting $430 million in fiscal 2016 for design, safety analysis and site preparation for the processing facility.
As part of an agreement to avoid cost overruns, Klotz said, construction of the three main buildings won’t begin until the design is 90 percent complete, expected sometime during fiscal 2017. He said work is on track to have the facility operating by 2025 and to stay within the $6.5 billion construction budget.
“I’m encouraged based on where we were two to three years ago in terms of big projects,” Alexander said.