Politics & Government

Multi-billion dollar mistake? Feds move to abandon over-budget nuclear fuel plant

Mixed Oxide fuel factory at Savannah River Site. The federal government is moving to quit construction on it before the nuclear fuel factory project is completed because of the expense.
Mixed Oxide fuel factory at Savannah River Site. The federal government is moving to quit construction on it before the nuclear fuel factory project is completed because of the expense. Photo courtesy of High Flyer

The federal government is moving swiftly to abandon construction of an over-budget plutonium fuel factory and lay off hundreds of workers at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex near Aiken.

Following a court ruling Tuesday that allows the government to close the unfinished facility, the U.S. Department of Energy wrote the project’s contractor about its plans to quit the project, which, at one point, was forecast to employ as many as 2,000.

It was not known how many people might be laid off. Court records show the number could be as high as 900, but a source with direct knowledge of the situation said the number may be less.

The Energy Department’s action comes after the government spent billions of dollars and a decade of construction on the still-unfinished mixed-oxide fuel plant. The project, known as MOX, was touted as a way to get rid of excess U.S. weapons-grade plutonium and provide jobs as part of an arms-control agreement with Russia. But it recently was projected to cost at least $17 billion to complete, about three times original projections.

In a letter Wednesday to project contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services, the Energy Department said Tuesday’s court ruling allows the government to quit construction of the mixed-oxide fuel factory. The project’s contract is terminated “effective immediately,’’ the letter said.

The Department of Energy was moving to abandon the project until a federal court put those plans on hold in June. This week, however, an appeals court overruled the lower court, allowing shutdown efforts to begin again.

“This notice will begin the process of winding down construction operations and preserving existing structures associated with the MOX facilities,’’ the Energy Department letter said. “The current workforce will focus their efforts on preserving the construction site in a safe and secure manner.’’

Federal officials did not directly say anyone would be laid off.

But, in a six-page letter, they told CB&I to move ahead with “workforce retention and reduction plans.’’ The State obtained a copy of the letter Friday afternoon.

A May 23, 2018, CB&I email, included in a court filing obtained by The State, said 600 to 900 workers could be laid off if the project was shut down. That email was written during the government’s initial attempt to shutter the project. Once notice of layoffs is given, workers would be terminated within 60 days, according to the May email from CB&I’s Bobby Wilson to the Energy Department.

The Energy Department’s Wednesday letter suggests the government will try to find other jobs at SRS for workers laid off in the MOX shutdown. The Savannah River Site has multiple job openings and displaced MOX workers could be hired for other SRS jobs, a source told The State.

A statement from the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Energy Department, said that agency “is committed to supporting the current workforce and will work with MOX Services throughout this transition process to reduce short-term impacts to workers, the surrounding community and the state of South Carolina. There will continue to be a significant need for the talented workers at the Savannah River Site to support NNSA’s enduring nuclear security missions.’’

Robert Kittle, a spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, said Wilson will press forward with a lawsuit filed in May challenging the decision to cancel the MOX project.

Wilson’s office says the federal government went back on its word by canceling the project, after supporting it for years. The attorney general says that without MOX, South Carolina will be left with tons of plutonium at SRS. Plutonium, a key component in nuclear weapons, has been linked to cancer.

Other S.C. leaders, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Sen. Lindsey Graham, said this week they would fight to keep the MOX plant from being abandoned.

Jim Marra, who heads the SRS support group Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said many Aiken-area residents want the MOX project completed.

But if it isn’t built, another project is needed at SRS, he said. In MOX’s place, the federal government has said it is considering a plant that would fabricate pits for use in atomic weapons.

“If the cards somehow fall that MOX is not going to go forward and it looks like pit manufacturing, we’re all in favor of that mission, too,’’ said Marra, who had not heard Friday about the Energy Department’s letter canceling the MOX project.

The MOX project had been on the drawing board since the 1990s. Construction began in 2007. However, the project was beset by cost overruns and delays. The Energy Department soured on the MOX project under the Obama Administration, citing shoddy construction and rising costs. The agency even led a media tour two years ago, highlighting the plant’s suspect construction.

The government now says much of the excess plutonium at SRS can be shipped to an underground cavern in New Mexico.

““This is a clear indication that the project is, once and for all, finally terminated and will not be revived,’’ said Tom Clements, a critic who heads Savannah River Site Watch.