A long-delayed plutonium conversion facility in South Carolina is in jeopardy thanks to President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, as the administration argues it’s too costly and there’s a cheaper, faster alternative.
The “Major Savings and Reforms” portion of Trump’s budget said the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as MOX, which has been under construction since 2007, would be too expensive to finish. The cost, it said, would be $800 million to $1 billion annually “for decades.”
MOX is a key component of the nuclear management facility in South Carolina known as the Savannah River Site. The site has existed since the early 1950s and handles nuclear operations such as nuclear waste conversion and research and serves as a temporary nuclear repository.
The MOX facility was part of an agreement between the Russian Federation and the U.S. to provide a better alternative for disposing of radioactive plutonium. If completed, it would convert weapons-grade plutonium into renewable energy.
Instead, the budget proposed an alternative known as dilute and dispose. The method involves mixing radioactive material with a classified mixture of “inert” material to make it less deadly. Once this mixture is created, it’s sealed in special containers and shipped to a federal repository in New Mexico, according to the Department of Energy.
The budget said the dilute and dispose method would save a net cost of $61 million, compared with MOX, as well as an additional $5 billion to $9 billion in construction costs.
“It would be irresponsible to pursue this approach when a more cost-effective alternative exists,” the budget read.
This method was also explored under former President Barack Obama, who nixed funding for MOX last year for similar financial reasons. Russia then suspended its agreement with the South Carolina facility in October.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, whose district includes the site, has been a strong advocate for finishing MOX. It’s roughly 70 percent complete, according to Wilson, who wasn’t pleased with the funding omission.
“I have grave concerns that the budget released by the administration does not align with the president’s commitments to the American people — especially when it comes to national security and defense — and lets down the people of South Carolina,” Wilson said in a statement Tuesday.
He was frustrated with the budget proposing an outright elimination of the facility, saying his state risks becoming a nuclear waste dump.
“The administration’s budget fails to appreciate the important role South Carolina plays in national security, environmental cleanup and creating jobs.” Wilson said. “I also remain concerned about broader impacts to the other critical missions at the Savannah River Site.”
However, Wilson said he was encouraged by Trump’s “fresh approach” to the budget and was confident that Congress and the president’s goals could ultimately align.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was disappointed that Trump’s approach to MOX is similar to Obama’s.
“I was hoping the Trump administration’s budget proposal would mark a clean break from Obama’s failed approach to MOX. Instead, it appears they are doubling down,” Graham said in a statement Tuesday.
Graham argued the dilute and dispose method for the weapons-grade plutonium had already been considered and rejected.
“The reasons were clear. It violates an important international nonproliferation agreement. It also 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,” he added.
Graham said he thought a solution to this problem could be a fixed lifetime contract between the DOE and MOX’s contractor.
Brian Symmes, press secretary for South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, said McMaster backs the MOX facility.
“Gov. McMaster supports the MOX project and hopes Congress will fulfill the federal government’s commitment to South Carolinians by fully funding it” in the 2018 budget, Symmes said by email.