President Trump’s budget proposal was released Tuesday slashing federal program budgets, reflecting his campaign rhetoric, and one nuclear nonproliferation program at Savannah River Site ended up on the chopping block.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, is again in the cross-hairs of presidential budgetary targeting. The facility was slated for termination by the Obama Administration in the fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, and President Trump’s budget follows Obama’s lead.
In the 2018 budget appendix, the document says the Trump Administration’s goal is to mothball MOX and pursue an alternative method announced in 2016 as a preferred alternative by Obama.
“The FY 2018 Budget Request proposes to terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute and dispose option as an alternative,” the appendix reads.
MOX is currently under construction at SRS and is designed to demilitarize weapons grade plutonium from America’s nuclear arsenal to make it useable as a fuel in commercial nuclear power plants. The process renders the plutonium useless for military purposes.
The Department of Energy’s preferred alternative of dilute and dispose is a hands-on process that mixes plutonium with inert material. Plutonium is ground up in a “glove box” by hand with a mortar and pestle. A small amount is then placed inside a canister and shaken with inert materials. The canister is then shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for permanent interment at the salt-mine facility in New Mexico.
MOX was born from an agreement between the U.S. and Russia in 2000. The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement called for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons usable plutonium. Combined, the 68 tons is enough to create about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
Under the agreement, each nation would take the MOX route to disposing the material. In late 2016, after the National Nuclear Security Administration testified before Congress that the Obama Administration wanted to pull the plug on MOX, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the agreement.
The suspension removed the 68 tons from International Atomic Energy Agency oversight and returned it to control of each individual nation. Earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying Russia would consider reviving the agreement if the American government would return to the original disposition pathway, MOX.
South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, whose district includes SRS, spoke out about the proposed MOX slashing.
“I am encouraged by the President’s fresh approach to the budget process, ultimately achieving a balanced budget. However, I have grave concerns that the budget released by the Administration does not align with the President’s commitments to the American people — especially when it comes to national security and defense — and lets down the people of South Carolina,” Wilson said.
Nuclear industry experts also spoke out against the proposal to terminate the MOX program.
“The MOX project’s main facility is over two-thirds complete – more than 70 percent done. Progress has been made every day and construction has never stopped, despite decreased funding and calls for termination by the previous administration. It is imperative that the project re-baselining , which Congress has requested, be completed so the Trump administration can make a decision based upon the best information available,” said Director of Federal Programs Baker Elmore with the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the political oversight office of the Energy Department over MOX construction, has said numerous times the facility is only about 30 percent complete. The difference in estimates between the contractor and the federal entity prompted Congress to request an independent assessment of completion percentage as well as figures for the cost to finish MOX.
Critics of MOX, like SRS WatchDirector Tom Clements who refers to the project as a classic boondoggle, said the budget proposal recognizes its flaws.
“The budget recognizes spending more money on the mismanaged MOX project is a waste and the facility should be shut down,” Clements said. “Politics can’t save the MOX project.”
But Congress still has to pass the budget, and last year’s MOX funding changed from the original presidential proposal. In 2017, MOX construction was slated for $270 million by the Obama budget. Trump’s new proposal lists $279 million for construction, still lower than the $340 million appropriated after Congressional changes in 2017.
“The Administration’s budget fails to appreciate the important role South Carolina plays in national security, environmental cleanup, and creating jobs,” Wilson said. “The elimination of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility puts South Carolina and Georgia at risk of being a permanent dump for nuclear waste.”
Georgia Republican Congressman Rick Allen echoed his colleague’s sentiments.
“I am disappointed that President Trump has continued the Obama Administration’s action to terminate MOX. This puts Georgia and South Carolina at immediate risk for becoming a nuclear waste dump,” Allen said.
Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness Director Jim Marra said, “I am disappointed and disheartened with the President’s budget request for MOX. This essentially just “kicks the can down the road.”
Wilson and Allen said they will work with their colleagues in Congress to fight for project funding.
Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.