South Carolina elected officials like to boast they have clout in the Trump administration. But they could be on the verge of losing a major effort to protect a big, job-producing nuclear construction project in their home state.
Thanks to a Tuesday court decision, the Department of Energy can now move ahead with plans to end the so-called mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, facility at the Savannah River Site near Aiken. There might be no way to stop it.
Not personal appeals to President Donald Trump from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spent hours golfing with the president two days before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the Tuesday ruling that cleared the way for the federal government to shutter the plant.
MOX currently employs hundreds of people but could be costing taxpayers $12 billion more than originally anticipated.
There’s also been no help from a longstanding history between Trump and Gov. Henry McMaster, the first, highest-ranking officeholder to endorse then-candidate Trump in the days leading up to the state’s crucial 2016 Republican presidential primary.
As a GOP congressman representing South Carolina in the U.S. House until last year, Mick Mulvaney signed onto letters urging the Obama administration to preserve MOX. Its purpose is to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.
Now, Mulvaney is proving to be a roadblock. As Trump’s budget director, Mulvaney argues the program is billions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule and should be terminated. No one has been able to convince him otherwise — not even his friend and former colleague, South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott.
“I spoke to Mick Mulvaney a long time ago, months ago, on this issue, so we have been weighing in on it consistently,” Scott said Wednesday.
Graham told McClatchy he spoke to Trump by phone on Tuesday night, following the court ruling. The purpose of the call, he said, was to lay the groundwork for arranging a meeting with delegation members, McMaster and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson — the son of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district includes MOX.
“I told (Trump) what the Department of Energy is doing makes no sense,” said Graham.
At an event in North Augusta, South Carolina on Wednesday, McMaster said he has been consistently lobbying the administration to support MOX. It’s in his interest to stay the course: He will face reelection in November, and he is heading to the polls boasting that he can use his leverage with the Trump administration to score wins for the state.
Yet the lack of success so far shows the limits of what it means to have friends in high places when it comes to such a deeply parochial issue as MOX, which after years on life support finally appears to be on the brink of collapse because of the court ruling.
MOX is the result of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia to destroy materials no longer necessary in the post-Cold War era.
The Obama administration Energy Department fought the South Carolina delegation for eight years to halt the initiative in favor of a cheaper solution. Every budget cycle, the federal government and Congressional lawmakers quarreled over whether to end funding or provide just enough for the program to continue. Ultimately, Congress prevailed.
Supporters of the project have pushed to preserve the program because of jobs, and because after nearly two decades there is no clear game plan for what will be done with the surplus plutonium, which can’t just lie dormant in South Carolina.
Proponents of closing MOX say the material should be moved out to a facility in New Mexico, a suggestion that’s been met with resistance by New Mexico residents.
There was some indication things would be different in the Trump administration, mainly because Congressional Republicans, the biggest advocates of the program, would no longer be warring with Democrats in the White House. But this has not been the case.
Scott said he believed the current Energy Department’s insistence on shutting down MOX was largely due to a fundamental disagreement about how much it will actually cost to complete the program.
“The Department of Energy appears to lean heavily on numbers they believe are most accurate,” Scott explained. “It’s just hard to fathom that the contractors, the community that has been supportive of MOX, can have one set of numbers, and the Department of Energy can have a whole other set of numbers, that are inconsistent.”
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., who has been following this issue for years, said there was no great conspiracy in Trump administration’s opposition to MOX: Ultimately, the White House is concerned about the price tag.
Lyman, who along with his larger organization opposes MOX for environmental and national security reasons, said Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry, to an even larger extent than Obama Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz, “was convinced that the MOX program was untenable, that it was too expensive and it was the prudent thing to shut it down.
“It’s a parochial state interest,” Lyman said, “versus the interest of the taxpayer.”