AIKEN - The United States could move forward with its MOX plutonium conversion plant at Savannah River Site without Russia under an amendment approved by a U.S. House committee Wednesday.
As part of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement signed in 2000, the two countries agreed to neutralize 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
The United States and Russia planned to build factories simultaneously that would turn the explosive material into fuel for nuclear power reactors, but complications in Russia and funding issues have prevented work from starting in the United States.
The programs would be separated under Wednesday's proposed amendment to the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act. The House Armed Services Committee approved the amendment, but it still must pass the full House and the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. factory was supposed to start converting plutonium by 2009, but delays have forced the production date back to 2015.
"We don't know if (the amendment) could definitely speed things up, but we're hopeful that it will," said Emily Lawrimore, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who introduced the amendment.
It would also restore $34.7 million to the proposed MOX budget next year. President Bush asked Congress in February to spend $289.5 million on the project, but that amount has been slashed to $139.5 million, Ms. Lawrimore said.
Construction on the MOX plant at SRS is supposed to start in October, and with enough money the production process will begin in 2015 with or without the Russians, said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration that is in charge of the project.
Securing money from Congress is a bigger obstacle than complications in Russia, Mr. Wilkes pointed out.
"We appreciate the committee's vote," he said.
But Mr. Wilkes pointed out what really was needed for the project to succeed was the full $289.5 million the president requested in the budget.
"Any reduction in funding would delay the project further," he said.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced that 200 employees of Duke, Comega Stone and Webster, the MOX contractor, would move from Charlotte, N.C., to Savannah River Site to oversee construction of the plant.
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A proposal before the U.S. House of Representatives would increase funding to Savannah River Site's MOX plutonium conversion plant next year to nearly $175 million, but officials say $289 million is needed.
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