I’m no expert on nuclear policy. Or foreign policy. Or public policy. But I do know political homicide when I see it. And the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River Site has been, without a doubt, brutally and bureaucratically murdered.
It was the Obama administration. In the conservatory. With the rope.
Its acolytes in the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration have done a good job following orders for two years, strangling the life out of the U.S.-Russian nuclear treaty project to the point that Vladimir Putin felt comfortable enough to walk away from a cold body.
Which he did, on Oct. 3, because of the “United States’ inability to ensure compliance with the assumed commitments” of the treaty that sought to convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from each nation’s nuclear stockpile into nuclear power plant fuel at the 600,000-square-foot facility.
The MOX budget money has been coveted for years. But the garrote didn’t emerge until two years ago when the administration’s “cold standby” budget ensured that the contractor, CB&I AREVA MOX Services, could move the 1,000-employee workforce along only at a snail’s pace.
Meanwhile, administration-friendly firms – aided and abetted by their anti-nuclear apparatchiks in the “concerned scientist” industry – issued bloated estimates for how much it would cost to finish the project as DOE and NNSA functionaries gave tightly controlled and highly-scripted tours designed to supposedly show how little work has been done at the 70 percent completed facility.
At one point, the administration said it would take a whopping $50 billion and 30 years to complete the project. The DOE’s latest estimates are $17 billion and completion in 2048, still about $7 billion higher and nearly 20 years beyond hat the contractor says.
Believe whichever side you want. I think you can tell which side I fall on, and it’s not the folks who told me if I liked my doctor I could keep my doctor.
Honestly, I don’t think Putin, a former KGB officer, could have done a better hatchet job on the MOX project himself. Thanks to this administration, he won’t have to.
“Needlessly delaying MOX makes no sense,” I wrote in this column back in December. “Remember that if America doesn’t hold up its end of the plutonium disposition agreement, Russia can simply walk away with its surplus plutonium.”
Well, America didn’t. And Russia has taken its nuclear ball (all 17,000 warheads worth) and gone home. To do what with is anyone’s guess.
And what is America supposed to do now with a mostly finished one-off nuclear facility in South Carolina that already has consumed more than $3 billion in taxpayer funds? Place it next to Yucca Mountain in the administration’s failed energy-policy trophy case.
As with Nevada’s Yucca Mountain waste repository, there are no valid scientific or financial reasons to shutter MOX – only political ones. The MOX fuel technology is not only scientifically sound, it’s been used in France for decades.
Did the MOX project go horribly over budget and behind schedule? Of course it did. It was a federal government project, so that sort of goes without saying. But it also is a highly engineered, one-of-a-kind facility designed to handle one of the most dangerous substances known to mankind.
This isn’t like building a tract home in Evans.
The current DOE/NNSA regime, however, wants Americans to give up on MOX and go with an alternative plutonium disposition plan called downblending, an equally costly plan that which would store the material in canisters at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – a problem-plagued facility, closed since 2014, that just had a major cave-in at one of its underground caverns.
If it hadn’t been for workers at the site leaking photos of the collapse, you probably would have never heard about the cave in – the only warts the NNSA wants you to see are at the MOX facility.
Call me crazy, but I believe there will come a day when both MOX and Yucca Mountain will be open for business. Their concepts are good, their science is sound and – for crying out loud – they’re practically finished.
Nuclear energy is going to be with us a long, long time. Just because our government is making stupid energy policy decisions now doesn’t mean it will in the future.