South Carolina senator asks about MOX facility future
South Carolina’s top elected officials came to the White House on Thursday to defend an imperiled nuclear fuel facility in their state, but left without being able to report definitively whether the project would survive the Trump administration’s latest attempts to kill it.
President Donald Trump hosted an all-Republican contingent in the Roosevelt Room for close to an hour to discuss the mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, program.
In attendance were Gov. Henry McMaster, state Attorney General Alan Wilson, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and Rep. Joe Wilson, whose district includes MOX. All are Republicans.
That Trump would take the time to meet on such a parochial issue as MOX was a sign of the South Carolina delegation’s clout. Graham personally appealed to the president for a meeting in a phone call that followed an afternoon of golfing.
“(The Energy Department) has badly mismanaged this program but they should bear the responsibility for that mistake, not South Carolina,” Graham said in a statement. “If DOE moves forward and scraps the MOX program, I will view it as the federal government breaking its commitment to South Carolina. I will push back and push back hard should they take that action.”
Over the weekend, Graham told reporters his impassioned defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation process would pale in comparison to what he would do if MOX was shuttered.
“You thought Kavanaugh was a fight? Ain’t seen nothing yet over this,” Graham said.
But the lack of a resolution so far on the program’s future shows the limits of the delegation’s influence.
Brian Symmes, McMaster’s spokesman, suggested in a statement that the meeting was perhaps, if nothing else, a chance for the delegation to make its case.
“Governor McMaster appreciates President Trump’s time and attention and his commitment to resolve this matter in a manner favorable to South Carolina,” said Symmes.
Symmes also tempered expectations for what McMaster, whose ties to the president date back to his endorsement of then-candidate Trump, was seeking.
“The governor did what he always does when he has an audience with the president — he advocated on behalf of South Carolina and brought to light an important issue that our people are facing, and he made it clear that he will not allow our state to become a dumping ground for the world’s nuclear waste,” said Symmes.
The project at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, is intended to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. It was the result of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia to destroy materials no longer necessary in the post-Cold War era.
Supporters of the project have pushed to preserve the program because of jobs, and because after nearly two decades there is no clear plan for what will be done with the surplus plutonium, which can’t just lie dormant in South Carolina.
Proponents of closing MOX say the material should be moved out to a facility in New Mexico, a suggestion that’s been met with resistance by New Mexico residents.
But MOX is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, and the federal government has said enough is enough. Trump’s Energy Department began the process of winding down operations at MOX earlier this year, leading South Carolina to sue the government to keep it open. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the state on Oct. 10, making efforts to save the project all the more urgent.
Scott released a statement painting the Thursday meeting in a positive light.
“The president was clearly open to our comments and our concerns,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we’re looking for ways to keep the president engaged and simply not allow the Department of Energy to do what they have done in the past, which is to use a set of numbers that we simply do not agree with.”
Scott believes the Energy Department’s insistence on shutting down MOX has been largely due to a fundamental disagreement about how much it will actually cost to complete the program.
“The bottom line is, we need to figure out how to make this energy either commercially viable or get it out of our state,” Scott said.