Appropriations bill criticizes slowing MOX to study alternatives

Congressional budget writers aired new concerns this week over the government’s plan to scale back construction at the mixed oxide fuel plant to explore other options for disposing of surplus plutonium.

The 2014 House Energy & Water Development Appropriations Bill, released this week, provides no funding for new studies and contends the National Nuclear Security Administration has already “exhaustively considered” potential alternatives.

“An extended study would instead further drive up the overall cost of the project by delaying ongoing construction and diverting attention from what should be a concerted high-priority effort to improve the project’s management and to limit further cost escalation,” the document said.

The facility at Savannah River Site, which employs about 2,100 workers and is 60 percent complete, is being built to dispose of surplus plutonium from thousands of dismantled warheads by blending it into commercial nuclear fuel.

However, the plant has become increasingly expensive and behind schedule, with construction costs revised this year from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy has since proposed cutting more than $100 million from the project’s 2014 construction budget, saying the program might have become “unaffordable.”

In addition to slowing construction, the Energy Department said it would “assess alternatives” to MOX – a sign critics say might herald abandonment of a facility where $4 billion has already been spent.

Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina wants the plant completed and opposes new studies of MOX alternatives, said his communications director, Caroline Delleney.

“Completion of the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site is the only way forward to honor our international nonproliferation agreements,” she said. “While he fully supports looking for ways to achieve costs savings within the program, restudying already disproved methods will not accomplish that goal.”

The House appropriations bill, while opposing any change in direction for the government’s plutonium disposition effort, still recommends $320 million for 2014 MOX construction, representing a cut of $115 million from the 2013 budget.

Tom Clements, a MOX critic and the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, said the budget bill is a bit ambiguous in its demands.

“The big contradiction is, they did not increase the construction spending level to the amount needed to keep the project on the track it’s on,” he said. “They can’t have it both ways and they can’t complain about increased costs and not give it enough to remain viable.”

The Senate appropriations budget, due out soon, is likely to have a different allocation for MOX – likely a higher one, Clements said, noting that the two bills would later be reconciled before becoming final.

It is also possible, he added, that Congress could fail to adopt a 2014 budget, meaning it would be another continuing resolution situation in which funding levels remain the same as previous budgets, without the MOX cuts now under consideration.

NNSA officials declined comment on the bill.

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