AIKEN - The future funding level of a Savannah River Site factory that is supposed to get rid of radioactive plutonium has in recent weeks changed more often than the weather.
One day the mixed-oxide facility, or MOX, which is supposed to turn at least 34 metric tons of plutonium into fuel for commercial power plants, looks like it will get the federal funding it needs next year.
The next day it doesn't.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the Energy Department that is in charge of the factory, asked Congress in February for $289.5 million in fiscal year 2007 to continue construction that is supposed to start later this year.
But that expectation was dealt a blow May 12. A proposal to erase all MOX funding, introduced by U.S. Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, was passed by the House Appropriations Committee.
The committee's decision hardly settles the matter, but it adds to the mounting pressure on the South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations to fund the project.
When South Carolina agreed to take plutonium no longer needed for the nation's nuclear arsenal, it was assured the potentially lethal material would leave the state. MOX is the only current plan to get rid of it.
"The entire delegation understands the importance of the MOX program to the site, the nation and the world," Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., said in a statement.
The full House still has to vote on its appropriations bill - possibly as early as this week - before it is hashed out in a joint conference with the Senate.
How much money the program gets could depend on what the House decides. The House and Senate are known to meet halfway on divisive issues. Right now, MOX would go unfunded in the House and would get full funding in the Senate, which also has yet to finish its appropriations process.
Mr. Hobson represents the biggest obstacle on the House side.
"It's the world against Hobson," said Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and a MOX supporter.
The Ohio Republican was able to zero out MOX funding because of his position as chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee. He is reluctant to fund the project because of uncertainties in Russia, which is supposed to build an identical factory to get rid of plutonium as part of its nonproliferation agreement with the United States, his spokeswoman, Sara Perkins, wrote in am e-mailed statement.
"The Russians have signaled that they have no interest in proceeding with their own MOX project," she wrote. "At the same time, the subcommittee did provide funding for the plutonium immobilization activities and environmental cleanup needs at Savannah River."
An amendment that would allow the United States to move forward without Russia passed the full House before Mr. Hobson's committee slashed funding, but it apparently didn't sway him.
It is unclear what reduced MOX funding would mean.
The private consortium of Duke, Cogema, Stone & Webster, which is building the factory, has $570 million on hand to start construction - $350 million from previous budget cycles and $220 million in this year's budget, said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration.
He said the agency needed its full $289.5 million request for 2007 to keep the project going.
"It's worth pointing out, the more construction is delayed, the more it's going to cost," he said.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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