Originally created 05/26/06

Funding for MOX program uncertain



The future of the mixed oxide fuel program at Savannah River Site is unclear after a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on the energy appropriations bill.

The bill, which eliminated funds for the MOX program, was approved on Wednesday.

Six years ago, the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by converting it to fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

The United States would convert its MOX fuel at a facility that is to be built at SRS. According to reports in The Augusta Chronicle, however, Russia has shown little interest in moving ahead with the project.

Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., whose district includes SRS, has remained a supporter of the program and voted against the measure.

"I just think that for our national security and to get rid of plutonium, it does make good sense to 'moxify' the plutonium," he said.

Mr. Barrett said the process could create commercial energy, reduce the amount of waste going to the Yucca Mountain waste storage site in Nevada and allow MOX fuels to be burned in nuclear reactors.

"Plus, we're making the country safer. It gets the weapons-grade plutonium in a fashion that cannot be used by terrorists," Mr. Barrett said.

The representative said the best chance of restoring MOX funds now lies with the Senate.

If the Senate includes money for the project in its appropriations bill, he said, a conference committee would set the amount for the MOX program.

Mr. Barrett said senators from Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina support the project. Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., also voted against the House measure Wednesday.

According to reports in The Chronicle, the program would convert fuel from the triggering devices of dismantled nuclear weapons into fuel rods for four Duke Power Co. nuclear reactors.

The U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration has been allocated $570 million to build the MOX facility at SRS. Of that amount, $350 million was earmarked in previous budgets and $220 million was included this year.

"The MOX facility is a one-of-a-kind facility," Mr. Barrett said. "The United States has never built one."

Julianne Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Security Administration, said the organization would continue to work for the funding.

"This is just the House portion. At this point it's very early in the congressional process," she said. "Things can change at any point, especially in Congress."

Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or betsy.gilliland@augustachronicle.com.