For nearly two decades, the Augusta and Aiken areas have been riding waves of uncertainty concerning Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility. Another wave’s here.
Last week, the National Nuclear Security Administration began a process to place the multibillion-dollar, under-construction facility on standby in light of continuous federal funding drawbacks. The Obama administration said Tuesday in its fiscal 2015 budget proposal that the Department of Energy needs to assess cheaper alternatives to the facility, which has already cost $3.9 billion.
The same worries that have concerned stakeholders for years are back: jobs, the local economy, national security and the future of the Savannah River Site.
“It has a national impact but we are the ones who will feel it the hardest, fastest,” said Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jameson.
Years before ground was broken in 2007 on the facility intended to process weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel, politicians and area leaders lobbied for the nuclear facility while environmentalists petitioned to keep plutonium out of the area. The first-of-its-kind nonproliferation mission promised thousands of jobs for Savannah River Site.
The MOX site has a current workforce of about 1,800, but more than 2,000 have worked there at points during construction.
A highly skilled construction workforce has completed about 60 percent of the 600,000-square-foot MOX plant. Retaining those jobs has become the focus of area economic partners.
No announcements have been made about layoffs since the president’s budget proposal. The NNSA said it will discuss workforce impacts with Shaw Areva MOX Services, the primary contractor for the project.
“We are currently working with the contractor to develop a cold stand-by implementation plan,” said NNSA spokeswoman Keri Fulton.
During cold standby, the facility and equipment will be protected from the environment and the site and government documents secured. An analysis of MOX alternatives will be completed in 12 to 18 months.
Rick McLeod, executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, said workers will move out of the area if there are massive layoffs. If the federal government ever resumed MOX, it would be difficult to attract them back to a project that has a reputation for instability.
“It’s easy to cut, but how do you start it back and get that trained workforce back,” McLeod said.
An economic impact study of Savannah River Site – not just the MOX project – found that 2½ jobs are created in the area for every one job at the South Carolina site. Half of SRS employees live in Aiken County and a third in Georgia, according to the study that examined Columbia and Richmond counties in Georgia and Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties in South Carolina.
Jameson said shutting down MOX has a regional and national impact. In addition to layoffs affecting area businesses, the massive construction project has contracts in dozens of states.
“It could be an instant impact. That is a real scenario,” Jameson said about potential layoffs.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said last week the administration was committed to a nonproliferation agreement to dispose of 64 metric tons of U.S. and Russian plutonium. MOX had been the chosen path, but it was no longer feasible without a substantial cost reduction.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released last year, construction costs were revised from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. Most recently, cost estimates for the program’s life-cycle ballooned to $30 billion.
The sky-high costs to build MOX were known from the beginning, said McLeod. Up-and-down budget changes, including the most recent that proposed $221 million to place MOX plant on standby, contribute to continual distrust in the community, he said.
Clint Wolfe, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and a proponent of MOX, said the region has been “betrayed” by the federal government.
“MOX was a 100-percent possibility,” Wolfe said. “It’s a very serious blow to the future of the site.”
Alternatives to MOX offer only a degree of certainty, Wolfe said. During escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the nation needs to focus on plutonium disposition.
“It’s a very dangerous time to be playing around with international agreements that have to deal with our national and international security,” he said.
The Savannah River Site – a former Cold War weapons site – needs an operation like MOX in its future, said McLeod.
“We don’t want to see the site become a closure site,” he said. “For new missions at the site, (the federal government) is going to have to look at other things besides cleanup.”
Jameson agreed that the site has a dismal future without MOX, and the energy department needs to look at new missions for SRS in addition to cleanup.
Even with the president’s proposal, leaders retain a bit of hope that MOX won’t be gone forever. The community has gotten used to riding the project’s ups and downs, Jameson said.
“The MOX obituary has been written in the past,” McLeod said. “This isn’t definite.”