The costly mixed oxide project at Savannah River Site would be terminated in 2017 under President Barack Obama’s proposed budget released Tuesday, angering South Carolina lawmakers, who say the administration is breaking its promise to build and support the facility.
The half-built facility, which is intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors, is 70 percent complete but billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
The site in Aiken, S.C., employs 2,000 people. It is part of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia that calls for the two countries to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The administration has said it will instead go for a cheaper alternative, called downblending, to honor the agreement with Russia.
2007Year that construction began on the Savannah River Site facility, to honor a 2000 agreement with Russia.
The budget, which spans the administration’s priorities from fighting the Islamic State to criminal justice restructuring to education, is unlikely to be passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Even so, South Carolina lawmakers have made it clear they’re going to challenge the Obama administration’s attempted shutdown of the mixed oxide project, known as MOX.
“I actually think that South Carolina is coming to America’s rescue, to be honest with you,” Sen. Tim Scott. R-S.C., told McClatchy on Tuesday. “The reality of it is that without the MOX facility we cannot honor our agreement with the Russians.”
Gov. Nikki Haley had previously threatened to sue the Department of Energy for its failure to meet a Jan. 1 deadline to begin removing the plutonium from the state, asking the state’s attorney general, Alan Wilson, to take legal steps and collect a $1 million daily fine. The lawsuit was officially filed Tuesday.
“The federal government has a responsibility to follow through with its promises,” Wilson said in a statement. “The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the state of South Carolina and frankly the rule of law. This behavior will not be tolerated.”
I look forward to a new presidential administration taking office in 2017 that will hopefully honor the commitment made to South Carolina when it comes to plutonium disposition.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district contains the Savannah River Site, called Obama’s decision to terminate funding for the project “counterproductive and shortsighted.”
The mixed oxide project “is the only viable method for eliminating plutonium at this time,” Wilson said in a statement, adding that closing the plant would “make South Carolina a de facto permanent repository for nuclear waste.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said abandoning the project without another plan in place was “reckless, ill-conceived and dangerous,” and warned that it would have serious repercussions for the U.S.-Russia agreement.
“As we have seen firsthand from their dealings with the Iranians, negotiating with a tough adversary is not a strong suit of the Obama administration,” Graham said in a statement. “Now is not the time to change course and have the Obama administration try to renegotiate anything with the Russians. It will not end well for U.S. interests. One can only imagine what the Russians will ask for in return.”
The 2000 agreement with Russia named the MOX plant specifically as the method through which the plutonium would be disposed, and changing it could cause problems.
“To secure their consent we would probably have to give on other issues like the tight inspections – and that would be really damaging, because at the end of the day this agreement is about making sure the Russians destroy their plutonium and don’t recycle it or leave it around unsecured,” said Andrew Koch, senior vice president for defense and homeland security at Scribe Strategies, a Washington-based public relations and lobbying firm.
We will continue to work with the governor’s office, our federal delegation in Washington and other state officials in a multipronged effort to protect South Carolinians.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson
He said Russia was not likely to look favorably on the change.
“Change the disposal method and either the Russians would have to agree to it, or the agreement would be null and void,” he said in an interview.
There have long been warning signs that the Obama administration intended to pull the plug on the project. Last year a high-profile Department of Energy report explored the cost of alternatives. It concluded that sending downblended plutonium to a repository in New Mexico could save the government $400 million annually.
Energy Department officials said they found that it would require $800 million a year to properly fund MOX.
Last year’s budget allocated $345 million to the project, just enough to cover some minor maintenance, keeping it chronically underfunded. Obama’s budget released Tuesday would appropriate a final $285 million for the site in fiscal year 2017, to move forward with the downblending alternative and kill the project once and for all.
A report released last year by High Bridge Associates, a nuclear construction consulting firm, warned that the cost of transporting, storing and securing the plutonium in New Mexico would cost more than $20 billion.
The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration says the downblending method is not only safer and more cost-effective but fast as well.
“The ‘Dilute and Dispose’ option would enable the U.S. to begin removing plutonium from South Carolina decades earlier than the MOX fuel option,” said Francie Israeli, National Nuclear Security Administration press spokeswoman.
The projects at the Savannah River Site were highlighted in a December McClatchy report on nuclear workers who had suffered cancer and other illnesses as a result of their jobs.
A McClatchy analysis of a U.S. Department of Labor database shows 1,400 Savannah River Site workers died after applying for benefits from the federal government for their health problems. Fewer than 600 applications were approved.
Clarice Silber contributed to this report.