South Carolina Fights U.S. Plan to Abandon Nuclear Project Employing 1,800

Department of Energy is spending $1.2 million a day on facility designed to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium

 
 

Estimated construction costs for the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a South Carolina plant which would dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, have soared to more than $17 billion.
Estimated construction costs for the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a South Carolina plant which would dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, have soared to more than $17 billion. PHOTO: HIGH FLYER/REUTERS
 

The U.S. Energy Department says it is spending $1.2 million a day on a partially built South Carolina nuclear facility that it wants to abandon due to soaring costs.

Congress has continued funding construction of the plant, which would be used to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, despite a series of reviews casting doubt on the financial logic involved.

Last month, a federal judge ordered the work to keep going, while South Carolina pursues a legal bid to force the Energy Department to stay the course.

 

The plant’s future is now the subject of budget negotiations on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are haggling over whether to continue funding the project in fiscal 2019, which starts Oct. 1, or wind it down. The federal government has spent $5.4 billion on the plant since construction began in 2007, and the facility accounts for nearly 2,000 jobs at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

The recent jousting marks the latest twist for the troubled Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. In 2007, U.S. officials said the so-called MOX plant would cost $4.8 billion and be completed by 2016. DOE officials today estimate it would cost $17.2 billion and take until 2048, assuming $350 million a year in federal funding.

“It’s a classic example of a big project run amok and continuing for parochial reasons, which is jobs in South Carolina,” said Tom Clements, director of the nonprofit watchdog group SRS Watch.

In 2014, the Energy Department concluded that plutonium could be disposed far more cheaply using a different method, known as “dilute and dispose.” The shift is opposed by South Carolina officials and members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The fight pits a state’s desire to retain jobs under a federal project against Washington’s determination that the project costs too much and isn’t the best technical option.

Under the MOX process, plutonium is converted to mixed-oxide fuel that can be used in commercial nuclear reactors. With dilute and dispose, plutonium is diluted with inert material to help keep it from being used in weapons, and it then goes to a secure repository such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

The Energy Department says it wants to repurpose the MOX facility in South Carolina so it can produce plutonium cores, or “pits,” for new nuclear weapons as part of a push to modernize the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

The judge’s order requiring continued work on the facility prevents the department from beginning to carry out that plan, it said, raising the possibility the U.S. could decide to produce the pits at a different facility elsewhere.

“The department has the ability to significantly reduce the cost of our plutonium disposition mission and provide resources for national security needs,” a DOE official said.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency in the Energy Department in charge of maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, said in a memo last month that the agency was rethinking the “viability to execute enduring missions” at the Savannah River Site, an important employer in western South Carolina. The site employs about 11,400 federal and contractor workers, including 1,800 associated with the MOX plant, officials say.

The uncertainty worries Aiken’s mayor, Rick Osbon, who would like to see the plant completed. “I think we’re a community that has always tried to do right by DOE,” he said. “Maybe it’s naive, but we certainly hope we can expect the same from them.”

The MOX is linked to a 2000 nonproliferation agreement between the U.S. and Russia. The deal called for each side to dispose of at least 34 metric tons (37.5 U.S. tons) of weapons-grade plutonium no longer needed for defense purposes. Russia two years ago unilaterally suspended the agreement.

From 2014 to 2016, Congress gave the Energy Department the same message: Keep building the MOX plant. Last year, Congress authorized the energy secretary to stop construction if evidence showed another method would cost less than half as much.

In May, Energy Secretary Rick Perry invoked the provision and prepared to halt construction in June. South Carolina sued, and U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs granted a preliminary injunction June 7 in the state’s favor, pending further litigation.

The judge rebuked the Energy Department, writing in her order that the state relied on its “countless commitments” in agreeing to take plutonium with the understanding it would be processed at the MOX plant. “Now, DOE is reneging on its promises made over the course of the last two decades,” she wrote.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, said the state wants the Energy Department “to abide by the rules they agreed to abide by, and we want them to not make South Carolina a dumping ground for nuclear waste.”

Mr. Graham has said he hopes the injunction would allow the state’s congressional delegation to “stop this madness and ensure South Carolina is not left holding the bag.”

Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com

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