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Trump budget plan would shutter controversial MOX plant

Chuck Crumbo
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The mixed-oxide fuel plant under construction at Savannah River Site has been targed for elimination in President Trump's budget proposal. (Photo/U.S. Department of Energy)In next year’s federal budget, President Donald Trump has proposed pulling the plug on the controversial and costly mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel project at Savannah River Site.

Instead of proceeding with construction of the MOX plant, Trump’s spending plan released Tuesday proposes that the U.S. Department of Energy pursue a program for dilution and disposal of plutonium, enabling the agency “to begin and complete targeted disposal many years sooner and at far less cost than with MOX.”

The budget proposal, crafted by Mick Mulvaney, a former S.C. congressman who’s director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, was criticized by two of the project’s leading supporters, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and Sen. Lindsey Graham. The S.C. Republicans are members of the Mulvaney’s and the president’s political party.

The project, designed to dispose of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program, is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Last year, President Barack Obama also proposed shuttering the MOX project but drew heavy fire from Republicans in the S.C. congressional delegation and former Gov. Nikki Haley. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson even sued Obama to restore funding. Months later, Congress included money in the 2017 fiscal year budget to press on with MOX.

About 1,800 workers are employed on the MOX project at Savannah River. (Photo/U.S. Department of Energy)“I was hoping the Trump Administration’s budget proposal would mark a clean break from Obama’s failed approach to MOX,” Graham said in a statement. “Instead, it appears they are doubling-down.

“This budget proposal, much like the Obama administration’s, embraces a process of ‘dilute and dispose’ for surplus weapons-grade plutonium.  There are several shortcomings with this approach.  First, it has already been considered.  Second, it was rejected.”

Graham added that the proposal to shut down MOX violates an international non-proliferation agreement and doesn’t take into consideration the legislative and regulatory changes needed to store the excess material underground.

“And it fails to account for the political opposition, on both sides of the aisle, that is likely to occur and will undoubtedly result in extended delays,” Graham said. “This plan will strand the material in place – which is unacceptable.  The only option with a clear disposition path is MOX.”

In a statement, Wilson said Trump’s budget plan “puts South Carolina and Georgia at risk of being a permanent dump for nuclear waste. MOX is the only facility in the nation that, when completed, would be able to convert weapons-grade plutonium into green fuel. I also remain concerned about broader impacts to the other critical missions at the Savannah River Site.”

Wilson said he thinks Congress can resolve the issue with Trump and put together a “responsible, fiscally conservative budget that supports military families, stands up for national defense, and strengthens our nation’s infrastructure. I believe we have the ability to find common ground with the President, and look forward to working with him for our shared goals for limited government.”

Originally estimated to cost $4.9 billion, projections have zoomed to $7.7 billion, according to federal reports. And the price could go higher. The Energy Department estimates that the project could cost $30 billion to finish in 2019, three years past the original completion date. The project employs about 1,800 workers.

Trump’s plan for MOX, though, drew praise from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has long called for canceling the program, claiming that it would make it easier for terrorists to gain access to material used to make a nuclear weapon.

“The MOX fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site is a money pit,” said USC senior scientist Edwin Lyman. “Cancelling the facility and disposing of our excess plutonium by diluting it and shipping it to a permanent repository will save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars—and it will be safer and more secure to boot. This is a great deal by any measure.”

Lyman published a report in January 2015 that proposed other methods for disposing of the radioactive material, including the option of diluting the plutonium and disposing of it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., which the Trump budget plan recommends.

Graham, however, thinks MOX has its merits and plans to work with the members of S.C. delegation and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to keep the project going.

“I think we should work toward a fixed lifetime contract negotiated between the Department of Energy and the contractor,” Graham said. “Let’s see if we can get a better price in place without crippling this important national security program.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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