U.S. Senate appropriators recommend $400 million for MOX plant at Savannah River Site

 

The troubled mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility got another boost Tuesday as Senate appropriators backed funding to continue construction of the Savannah River Site project.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee approved $400 million for the MOX facility, or $204 million more than the Obama administration proposed spending to shut down the multibillion-dollar plutonium disposition program.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a long-standing proponent of the project and member of the Energy and Water subcommittee, said that although bipartisan support backed MOX funding there is still work to do before the money is cleared.

“I’m very optimistic we can get it through the Senate,” Graham said Tuesday during a teleconference with media members. “We’re going to have to work to get it through the House.”

The MOX facility, which employs about 1,800 workers and is 60 percent complete, is being built to convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. It is intended to fulfill a nonproliferation agreement with Russia.

Graham said Congress recognized the MOX facility’s importance for national security and is acting in favor of it even during a tight budget cycle.

“No one looked at this as a red-state problem. They looked at it as a national problem,” he said.

Last week, U.S. House appropriators approved $345 million for MOX, also specifying the funding had to be used for construction during fiscal year 2015 and was not to be placed on standby. House and Senate subcommittees also favored the project’s construction in the National Defense Authorization Act.

In the president’s fiscal 2015 budget request, $196 million was recommended for placing MOX on standby while cheaper alternatives were assessed. An additional $25 million was requested for other project costs related to MOX.

Graham said that he is confident there’s no better alternative for disposing of plutonium than the MOX facility but that the program, which is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, needs a thorough review.

“We’re going to get the contractors and (U.S. Depart­ment of Energy) in one room and try to control the cost,” he said. “It’s fair to put the program under scrutiny.”

Despite construction cost overruns in the billions, Graham said, life-cycle cost estimates that have ballooned to $30 billion are exaggerated.

MOX critic Tom Clements, the director of watchdog group SRS Watch, said funding increases for the project at Savannah River Site only delay finding solutions.

“At some point in the future, it’s still going to come to a head,” Clements said. “It dodges making hard decisions on the fate of plutonium disposition.”

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