On Tuesday, President Obama made his intentions regarding Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility clear: kill it.
However, it won’t shut down without a fight as South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed suit Tuesday in federal district court regarding the U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to make good on agreements on the facility’s completion and the removal of plutonium from the site.
In his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal posted to the White House Web site, Obama proposed cutting MOX funding by $55 million, dropping its annual budget to $285 million. The Energy Department puts the actual nonproliferation construction budget – MOX being the only project – at $270 million.
The proposal calls for terminating the project next year, asking the U.S. Department of Energy to instead compete the pre-conceptual design for the dilute and dispose option previously provided as an alternative to MOX, which has been plagued with construction delays and cost overruns.
That option, according to previous reports, involves down-blending weapons grade plutonium to then be stored at the Waste Isolated Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which is currently shut down. Material processed at MOX, on the other hand, would be converted into mixed oxide fuel to be used in commercial nuclear reactors.
Contractors say that roughly $5 billion has already been spent on the main MOX facility, which they estimate is 70 percent complete, and should take another $3 billion to finish the project. However, those figures have been disputed by others.
According to a detailed budget released by the Energy Department on Tuesday, two reports completed by federally funded research and development center Aerospace Corporation and an analysis by industry experts gathered by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – dubbed the Red Team – concluded that downblending would be nearly $400 million cheaper than MOX.
But lost in the noise surrounding the budget proposal is it’s just that – a proposal.
“The Congress is under no stipulation or mandate to produce what the president asks of it,” said Craig Albert, assistant professor of political science at Augusta University. “The true budget process begins in the House and Senate where in each body, budget resolutions are written and voted upon.”
Albert continued that presidential budget proposals carry little weight outside of their affiliated party. Previous attempts to halt construction at the site were met with much backlash by a vocal bipartisan group.
“There is very little chance that the final budget resembles what the president proposes,” Albert said. “The speaker of the House has already declared several aspects of the budget ‘dead on arrival’ meaning, no chance of passing. Because both houses are Republican dominant, it is highly unlikely that most of the president’s contentious (according to Republicans) proposals will happen.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said after Obama’s budget proposal he fears that South Carolina is becoming the de facto repository for nuclear waste. In a lawsuit filed in federal district court on Tuesday, the state’s attorney general asked that the Energy Department immediately remove one metric ton of weapons grade plutonium from SRS and pay $1 million for each day the terms of its agreement with the state is not met.
The material mentioned in the suit was supposed to be removed by Jan. 1 if MOX wasn’t operational.
“The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the state of South Carolina and frankly the rule of law,” Alan Wilson said in a written statement. “The federal government is not free to flout the law. This behavior will not be tolerated. We are committed to using every legal avenue possible to ensure compliance.”
His father, Joe Wilson, again voiced his support for the project being built by Chicago Bridge and Iron and Areva Group. Both are regular contributors to his campaign committee, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“This decision to eliminate funding to the MOX facility is counterproductive and short-sighted,” Wilson said.
Tom Clements, director of the nuclear watchdog group SRS Watch, on the other hand, welcomed the proposal.
“DOE is to be congratulated for admitting the reality that the MOX project is not financially or technically viable and must be terminated,” he said. “Termination is the only option for MOX as there is no viable path forward for the project from a financial or technical perspective.”
The detailed budget said that it will ask contractors to “determine activities required to place the facility and project in a safe and secure state,” before winding down construction. The Energy Department would then ask MOX Services to stop construction for 90 days while a termination plan is developed.
About 500 craft personnel and 750 salaried personnel would be released with an average of two weeks pay. Under the proposal, MOX would be completely shut down by 2021 at a cost of $600 to $700 million, which is higher than the $500 million estimate provided to U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., during a site tour last month. Aiken Chamber of Commerce President David Jameson said he’s heard figures as high as $1 billion for the shutdown alone.
“As this battle ensues, I feel sorry for the uncertainty that the workforce must endure while politics is at play,” Jameson said. “In good conscience, how can the federal government walk away from this project after funding billions for construction to this point? Alternative directions will take decades to develop and implement.”