Scuttlebiz: MOX appears dead, but not buried

President Trump’s budget essentially terminates MOX, and anti-nuke activists are taking a victory lap. They’d probably be doing front-wheel burnouts in parking lots throughout the region if the average hybrid had the horsepower.

 

But is the full-throttled elation premature? Possibly.

The thing to remember about Trump’s 2018 budget — which essentially nixes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site —is that Congress controls appropriations. That little check-and-balance hasn’t changed despite eight years of near-unilateral governance under the previous administration.

If you keep up with what goes on at SRS —and you should, considering it’s Augusta-Aiken’s second-largest employer —then you’ve heard Trump’s budget slashes MOX construction funding from about $340 million a year to $270 million. It also directs the contractor, CB&I Areva MOX Services, to scrap the entire project and pursue an allegedly less expensive plutonium disposition method called “downblending.”

If that sounds like a continuation of the previous administration’s misguided strategy to kill the 600,000-square-foot Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration project, that’s because it is.

Apparently, the White House has fallen for the fallacy perpetuated by mid- to upper-level Obama administration holdovers at DOE/NNSA, who say the plant — designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into usable nuclear power plant fuel — is a hopeless boondoggle.

“I was hoping the Trump administration’s budget proposal would mark a clean break from Obama’s failed approach to MOX. Instead, it appears they are doubling-down,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham.

“I am disappointed,” said Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga.

“I am disappointed and disheartened,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

I’m disappointed, disheartened and more than a little dismayed our chief executive, a person who actually built things, would pull the plug on a mostly-finished plant so that a managerial-challenged federal agency can write billions of dollars in new checks pursuing a project to do the same thing as the MOX facility.

Minus the fuel part, of course: The dilute-and-dispose method would simply bury waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the New Mexico repository that had a cave-in last year and, up until a month ago, had been closed to new shipments because workers caused a drum of plutonium to explode in 2014. Zoinks!

This might be a good spot to note MOX opposition (much like opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada) is, was and likely will always be purely political. Mixed-oxide fuel is not a pie-in-the-sky concept — France has generated electricity with it for decades.

The news out of Washington this past week was no doubt a downer in this largely pro-nuclear region, particularly since many business leaders expected Trump to boost the project that supports hundreds of area vendors and more than 1,000 engineers and skilled tradespeople.

Instead, the administration is poised to let MOX become an unfinished multi-billion DOE monument to taxpayer waste, just like Yucca Mountain project Obama shuttered as a political favor to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (Interestingly, Yucca Mountain would get $120 million in revival funds under the Trump budget. Hooray for that, at least.)

The 2018 fiscal year starts Oct. 1. The best-case scenario for MOX — as horrible as it sounds to proponents of good government — would be for congressional dysfunction to trigger a “continuing resolution,” which would revert facility funding to Obama-era “cold standby” levels.

That’s not as bad as outright abandonment. But it’s still cold comfort to anyone who thought Trump would make MOX great again.

GOVERNMENT INK OR INC.?: Talking about our meticulously coiffed commander-in-chief makes me wonder what Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president, would think about the current state of affairs in Washington.

An interesting fact about Wilson, aside from being the kid who used to live at 419 Seventh St. in downtown Augusta, is that he wrote several academic papers in the 1880s advancing the concept of running government “like a business.”

Wilson’s contributions to public administration are still studied at Augusta University’s Pamplin College, although the head of AU’s master of public administration program, William Hatcher, is clear that some of the theories just don’t hold up.

“In some areas (government) can be run like a business, in other areas it can’t,” he said.

Operating trash pickup like a business? Good idea. Running law enforcement like a business? Bad idea.

“Oftentimes, whenever people talk about running government like a business, what they really mean is government needs to be run professionally,” he said.

The closest one gets to anything resembling “profit” in the public-sector (graft and corruption aside) occurs when public servants responsibly use public funds to, well, serve the public.

The challenge to that, as taxpaying members of society know, is the P-word: politics.

“The people within the government, the elected officials and the citizens all have different ideas of what ‘serve the public’ is,” Hatcher said.

The most harmonious governments, he says, tend to follow three tenets: efficiency, effectiveness and fairness.

“Do we get the most ‘bang for our buck’ – to be good stewards? Are we actually actually achieving the goals we have in providing those services? And then are we being fair in that we’re keeping with our constitutional system and democratic values?” he expounded.

When one goes the three tenets goes out of whack, bad governance sets in.

“You can be really efficient in the public sector and not follow fairness,” Hatcher said. “Mussolini was very good at getting the trains to run on time, but he didn’t really worry too much about fairness.”

DON’T MISS THIS TRAIN: There’s only a few days left to participate in what is being called the first comprehensive workforce study of the region’s cyber industry.

Hatcher, his MPA program colleagues and the AU Cyber Institute are setting out to determine how many cyber and IT positions will be needed in the metro area during the next few years – and what skills those jobs will require.

If your organization employs, trains or contracts with cyber-related IT professionals and you haven’t received a survey, email Hatcher at wihatcher@augusta.edu. But do it soon.

RUMINATIONS BY RICK: I’m excited to announce Richard Franza, the new dean of AU’s James M. Hull College of Business, has agreed to write a bi-monthly business column for The Augusta Chronicle on topics of local, regional and national interest.

If you’re a longtime reader of the Chronicle’s business section, you’ll recall the columns of his Hull College colleagues, including Associate Dean Mark Thompson and Associate Finance Professor Simon Medcalfe. I have no doubt Franza’s contribution will be every bit as enjoyable and thought-provoking.

His first installment touches on his “first 100 days” at the university as well as his thoughts on how metro Augusta is blowing up. In the good way.

LOCAL COMPANY, REGIONAL REACH: It’s easy to forget the Augusta area is home to enterprises that do as much business outside the metro areas as they do here at home. But every once in a while we get a reminder, such as the recent announcement Southeastern Development’s Courtyard Marriott in Charleston-Summerville won the franchise’s “Hotel of the Year” award.

That’s out of more than 1,100 Courtyards worldwide, by the way. The company “couldn’t be more proud having received Marriott’s highest honor for our Summerville team and our facility,” Southeastern CEO Vic Mills said in a statement.

The company, which grew out of Blanchard & Calhoun’s former commercial division, has long had a reputation for quality projects. It’s local portfolio includes the soon-to-be-redeveloped Aiken Mall, Augusta’sDaniel Village shopping center and River Island, an upscale conservation community in Columbia County.

But Mills and his team have major commercial and residential developments in communities in four other states, all of which are run from its suite in the Augusta Corporate Centre, the mid-rise office complex Mills helped develop more than three decades ago.

The Southeastern project I consider most fascinating is its $160 million “One Riverwalk” mixed-use development in Knoxville, Tenn., where the firm is redeveloping 23 acres of downtown riverfront – the former Baptist Hospital site – into 300 luxury apartments, a new University of Tennessee student-housing facility and commercial buildings that include a hotel and the corporate headquarters for the Regal Cinemas theater chain.

Dang. If the current local attempts to redevelop city-owned riverfront property go south, I think it’s pretty clear who officials should have on speed dial.

DON’T CHICKEN OUT: It seems like just yesterday (January) that people in our area (Thomson) were camping out at a new Chick-fil-A to get free food for a year by being one of the “First 100” customers through the door.

Well, the poultry pandemonium happens all over again this coming week when Grovetown’s Chick-fil-A opens June 1 just off Interstate 20’s Exit 190 on Horizon South Parkway.

If you plan to stake a spot, you can start lining up at 6 a.m. May 31. And while you’re there, why not help restaurant employees pack the 10,000 meals and donated children’s books they are giving to Grovetown’s Concerned Women Inc. charitable organization?

C’mon campers, earn that chicken sandwich!

SPEAKING OF JUNE 1: That’s the date Augusta Metro Federal Credit Union gets absorbed by the nation’s third-largest credit union, PenFed, which has $22 billion in assets.

Consider it another byproduct of the metro area’s growing defense industry: Tysons, Va.-based PenFed stands for Pentagon Federal, and most of its 1.5 million members are military-affiliated.

“Augusta Metro’s fantastic team, the rich heritage of its membership, and the growing importance of Fort Gordon in our nation’s cyber-security efforts make this a perfect partnership,” PenFed Senior Vice President Ricardo Chamorro said in a statement when the merger was announced back in February.

The 22,000-member, $112 million Augusta Metro Federal was founded in 1961 by employees at Continental Can Co. (now International Paper). It grew rapidly through local mergers starting about 15 years ago, the most recent being Augusta Seaboard Community Federal Credit Union in 2014 and University Health Federal Credit Union in 2015.

The nation’s largest credit union, the equally military-centric Navy Federal, already has an Augusta presence. So with another biggie coming to town and financial industry aftershocks still being felt from the South State Bank acquisition of Georgia Bank & Trust, expect to see the market’s largest locally-based credit union, SRP Federal Credit Union, amp up operations soon.

BANKS ARE BUSY, TOO: The Georgia Bankers Association this past week said Georgia’s 181 FDIC-insured banks earned a collective $764 million during the first quarter, a 6.2 percent increase above the same period last year.

Quarterly loan growth was 2.4 percent; deposits were up 4.2 percent. And the association reported 97 percent of the state’s banks were profitable, compared to the national average of 96 percent.

“These are all indicators that Georgia’s family and business finances continue to be stable, and the economy continues to support a healthy banking sector,” Association President Joe Brannen said.

IN TARVER WE TRUST: Earlier this month I wrote about local banks each trying to expand their “sphere of influence” in the wake of the GB&T acquisition. Just this past week First Community Corp., the Lexington, S.C., company that acquired Augusta’s Savannah River Banking Co. in 2014, elected longtime Augusta attorney and former Georgia legislator Ed Tarver to its board of directors.

Tarver, who recently joined with the J. Edward Enoch firm to create Enoch Tarver, also served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.

As far as spheres go, I’d say Tarver’s has a pretty “mean curvature.”

Cue the rimshot.

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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Sat, 11/18/2017 - 17:42

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