Politics & Government

S.C. nuclear project backers thought they had friends in the White House. They were wrong.

Aerial shot of the Savannah River Site in Aiken, SC, where a controversial plan would send plutonium for conversion into fuel for Charlotte's nuclear reactors.
Aerial shot of the Savannah River Site in Aiken, SC, where a controversial plan would send plutonium for conversion into fuel for Charlotte's nuclear reactors. AERIAL PHOTO COURTESY SRS

South Carolina members of Congress have been fighting for years to protect an over-budget, behind-schedule project at a local nuclear facility. The battle to save the effort has gotten even tougher.

Not even White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who until a year ago was a former South Carolina Republican congressman, is willing or able to intervene.

In previous years, the state’s majority-Republican congressional delegation was able to rebuff a Democratic president’s opposition to the mixed-oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, program at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

But having a Republican president is proving to be no help. For the second year in a row, President Donald Trump is taking the same stance that the program should end.

And the Trump administration actually went further in its fiscal 2019 budget proposal released Monday. Facing criticisms from fiscal hawks that the White House isn’t disciplined on spending, the budget specifically brands MOX’s termination as a major cost-saver of $10 to $12 billion in waste.”

Of course, Congress rarely takes any administration’s annual budget seriously, regardless of party affiliation. But for longtime critics of the MOX program, which is about converting nuclear weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel, having Trump on their side could prove empowering.

“I consider it progress that at least nominally Donald Trump is opposed to (MOX),” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has opposed the program going back to his days at the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “That is a big step forward from my perspective.”

Protectors of the program can’t count on Mulvaney to use his influence. At a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday, Mulvaney said he still had not heard a definitive dollar amount for how much the effort would cost to complete.

“As the budget director, that really, really worries me,” he said.

Nor can South Carolinians rely on Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Just a week and a half ago, he visited the Savannah River Site and called the facility’s future “very bright,” but he ultimately would not or could not affect the administration’s decision.

An Energy Department spokesperson would not return requests for comment.

The MOX program was first launched in 2000, the result of an agreement between the United States and Russia to deal with materials no longer needed in a post-Cold War era. Eighteen years later, the project has spent billions of dollars with more necessary to complete it, and there are deep disagreements over when the project can be finished.

Some reports indicate at this rate the undertaking won’t be finished until sometime in the 2030s. Rep. Joe Wilson, the Republican who represents Aiken, and the state’s senior GOP senator, Lindsey Graham both say the initiative is actually closer to 70 percent complete.

Members of both parties are concerned about the cost and uncertainty, if not also about the environmental impact, which is partly Markey’s preoccupation. Those who favor winding down the MOX program say a better way to deal with the material would be to move operations somewhere else, possibly New Mexico, and pursue a different disposal process that would be both faster and cheaper.

South Carolina opponents have a number of complaints about this alternative. They say it would cost the state jobs, represents an untested method of disposal and offers no guarantee New Mexicans would agree to inherit 34 metric tons of plutonium.

Members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have in the past balked at the premise. They might be even pricklier to that arrangement now that there are also discussions about using the Savannah River Site to produce plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons.

For a time, Los Alamos National Laboratory was exclusively producing the pits. With Trump eager to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons capability, there’s talk of resuming pit production but moving it to South Carolina.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., suggested Monday the Trump administration might be looking to offer pit production capabilities to South Carolina in exchange for ending MOX, an arrangement that could leave New Mexico without a unique economic driver as well as another state’s economic burden.

During Perry’s recent visit to the Savannah River Site, the energy secretary spoke about “expanding the mission” of the facility. Graham later gushed about the possibility of a “nuclear renaissance” in South Carolina.

But Graham and Wilson, the delegation’s two biggest MOX advocates, have not given any indication they would be willing to accept something like pit production at the Aiken plant if it meant losing the MOX program.

On Tuesday, Graham told McClatchy he was “a little” surprised with the administration’s proposal to zero out funding for MOX given his recent visit to the Aiken with Perry and the conversations the two men have had over the past year on the subject.

Graham said he would work to find a solution, specifically “a way to get the cost of the program down so we can complete it.”

He has some clout as a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which has jurisdiction over MOX. In the past, fellow subcommittee members of both parties have deferred to him on the issue, but often with considerable reluctance.

“The MOX program is clearly a problem,” the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, conceded.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain