The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday that would authorize $340 million for the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication project at Savannah River Site for fiscal year 2017.
The House voted 277-139 in favor of “agreeing to the resolution” for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. It is expected to go to the Senate next week, and if approved, signed by President Obama.
Last year, the project secured $345 million in funding through 2016.
The MOX project came out of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The material would be enough to create about 17,000 nuclear weapons.
However, funding for the embattled project has been the subject of much debate and the Obama administration was in favor of mothballing it. South Carolina and Georgia politicians have lobbied to keep funding it.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, applauded the vote. He also noted that it “elevates U.S. Cyber Command to a full, unified combatant command.”
“I am grateful that this legislation funds the critical national security and environmental cleanup missions at the Savannah River Site, including the MOX facility, and supports Fort Jackson and its role as the largest initial entry training facility for the U.S. Army,” Wilson said in a statement.
Tom Clements, director of nuclear watchdog group SRS Watch, said the funding falls short of what MOX needs.
“The authorization of $340 million for FY 2017 is a level that keeps the project on a shut-down track as it’s far below what’s needed to move the project forward,” Clements said. “It is a stinging defeat for Representative Joe Wilson and Senator Lindsey Graham that they have not been able to get the project off a life-support funding level.”
According to Augusta Chronicle archives, construction on the plant began in 2007 and its initial cost was projected at $1.7 billion. Contractors say the site is nearly 70 percent complete and would require another $3 billion to finish.
John MacWilliams, associate deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, said in September that the project has had “very significant cost overruns and delays” and should be replaced with an alternative method. MacWilliams said the life-cycle cost of MOX ranges from $30 billion to $50 billion. The plant was supposed to be operational by Jan. 1 of this year, but some reports estimate the plant might not start up until 2048, MacWilliams said.
The bill also calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the contract for the construction, management and operations of the MOX facility.
“As the Corps of Engineers has already come up with a cost of the MOX plant that is not sustainable, I would expect their assessment of the MOX contract to be quite tough, especially as it would have to review design and construction problems,” Clements said. “As a result of the contract review by the Corps of Engineers, I would imagine that MOX Services would not accept inevitable contract changes detrimental to them and that would end in termination of both their contract and the overall project.”