A day after a House panel voted for continuing the current level of funding for the MOX program, a Senate subcommittee voted Wednesday for a reduced level in the federal budget for the next fiscal year.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water voted $270 million for construction of a mixed-oxide production facility, a process of stabilizing weapons-grade plutonium. The House counterpart to the subcommittee voted Tuesday to fund the program at $340 million, the same level as the current budget but lower than what experts say is needed to make the program viable.
Construction of a MOX processing facility at Savannah River Site is behind schedule and about $8 billion over budget, by some critics’ estimates. The administration says that’s why it wants to shut the program down and use a different method of disposing of 34 metric tons of plutonium.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said while funding is too low to complete construction, he’s grateful for it.
“I want to thank the committee for rejecting the idea of terminating the program,” he said.
He notes that an agreement between the U.S. and Russia calls for MOX reprocessing of the radioactive material so that it can be sold as fuel for generating electricity and that Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that any other method of disposal violates the agreement. He also said the administration’s proposed dilute-and-dispose method is unproven and politically unworkable.
“This is not a South Carolina problem. This is a national problem and an international problem,” Graham said. “If you can convince me that there is a way to do this cheaper, I’m all ears. But don’t give me a plan that no one’s thought about, that’s ill-conceived and has a snowball’s chance of working just because the costs are larger than anticipated.”
Senate Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the choice of MOX or another disposal method is the province of the Senate Armed Services Committee and that his panel is merely keeping options open.
“At least we’re confronting a very difficult problem with a huge cost number on one hand and some pretty big problems to solve on the other,” he said.
Anti-nuclear activists plan to descend on Washington on Monday, and defunding MOX is one of their aims. The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability plans a week of lobbying for reduced funding of most nuclear programs.
“The problem-plagued plutonium fuel (MOX) project, to dispose of surplus weapons plutonium as nuclear fuel, is a monumental waste of money and is unlikely to ever accomplish its mission,” wrote the authors of a report from the Alliance.
It says the current funding is designed to wind down the program, despite what some describe as Graham’s parochial cheerleading.
“Design flaws, construction errors, and lack of MOX customers could all be showstoppers. DOE and its contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services, both bear responsibility for these failures,” the report said.
The full House and Senate still must act on the subcommittee recommendations, and then a conference committee will negotiate the differences.