Originally created 11/23/04

MOX is back in Capitol budget



AIKEN - A $388 billion congressional spending bill that passed last weekend provided mixed news for Savannah River Site but included goodies worth almost $2.5 million for several Augusta projects.

Medical College of Georgia Hospital got $500,000 for the construction of its cancer research center, and the Augusta Regional Airport got $1.5 million to complete construction of a new terminal. Airport officials said last month that they needed about $30 million.

The Augusta Canal National Heritage Area got $400,000.

The massive bill, which doled out operating funds to federal agencies, provided $300 million for the long awaited mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at SRS. The plant would convert plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors and could provide about 500 long-term jobs.

Construction had been scheduled to start in May but could be put off again because the United States is supposed to build the facility at the same time Russia does - part of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement. Russian demands that the United States assume liability for the plant built in their country have brought the project to a standstill.

"The conferees are disappointed the Administration has failed to negotiate an acceptable solution for liability to allow the MOX program to move forward this year," members of Congress wrote in the spending bill. "As a result, another construction season will be missed in Russia."

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed optimism that the roadblocks could be removed.

"The Bush administration understands how important it is we get this project moving so we can take this material off the market and terrorists cannot get their hands on it," he said in a statement.

Critics said money for the project won't be spent until the liability snarl is untangled.

SRS will also get about $1.15 billion for cleanup and operations, including about $162.2 million to accelerate the cleanup, removal and storage of about 37 million gallons of high-level waste in 49 underground tanks.

However, money denied for the newly designated Savannah River National Laboratory was not restored in the final spending bill. And SRS supporters will have to wait on a decision about the Modern Pit Facility, a $4 billion plant that would remanufacture plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. The bill included a stipulation that a site not be selected in fiscal year 2005, which ends in October.

Congress voted to cut money for the nuclear trigger factory from $29.8 million to $7 million - about half of what SRS supporters said was necessary to keep together the design and engineering team for the project.

If SRS is chosen to hold the pit facility, it could bring about 1,500 jobs to the area.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

MIXED MESSAGE

Three Augusta projects got almost $2.5 million from a massive congressional spending bill that passed over the weekend. However, Savannah River Site got mixed results - $300 million will go to a mixed-oxide plant that will convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants, but money for a nuclear trigger factory was not restored.