The federal government is throttling an $8 billion project in South Carolina to turn Cold War-era nuclear weapons material into commercial reactor fuel, citing ballooning costs that would reach $30 billion by the time the project's job is done.
The U.S. Department of Energy writes in a budget request to Congress, disclosed on Monday, that the Savannah River Site's "mixed oxide" fuel program isn't viable economically and will be placed in "cold standby."
However, both environmentalists and a bipartisan collection of senators in South Carolina and neighboring states said the government hasn't offered any alternatives publicly.
The request document makes mention of a special group formed to devise alternatives for disposal of weapons-grade plutonium to honor long-standing non-proliferation treaties with Russia, but details have been withheld, said Tom Clements, nuclear advisor to the Sierra Club's South Carolina chapter.
"Given the mismanagement of the MOX program and its massive cost increases, DOE's credibility has suffered tremendously, and it is only through much more openness and transparency that DOE can hope to regain any public confidence in its plutonium disposition efforts," said Clements, who on Monday shared key points of the 672-page document with The Greenville News.
Likewise, Clements said the government's defunding of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication project is affirmation that reprocessing nuclear material isn't the answer – but neither has the Department of Energy provided a basis for the $30 billion price tag.
The Department of Energy's unwillingness to seek necessary funds for the seven-year-old MOX project has brought together bipartisan opposition, as two Democratic senators have joined South Carolina Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott in a recent letter calling the action "inappropriate."
The department's actions are counter to the MOX project being the only disposal plan sanctioned by congressional action, the senators said in a letter addressed to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, joined by Democrats Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, along with Republicans Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
The senators wrote that laws have prescribed that funds be used to move the MOX program forward, not to be spent on preparing the project to be on standby as the country tries to fulfill its end of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement.
The agreement was reached to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium the two countries once aimed at each other.
"While we share your concerns regarding the increased costs associated with the plutonium disposition program," the senators wrote, "we are concerned that the budget request will end up adding to the costs while we still try to consider options regarding the program."
The cold standby process will be implemented this month at the site in Aiken County, the energy department wrote in its budget request.
The slowdown will have an impact on the economy, the department wrote.
At the beginning of April 2013, there were 2,271 contracting partner personnel on board. By the end last December, that number had been reduced to 1,523, the document states.
In that time, there were "368 personnel laid off and 451 personnel left voluntarily or due to scope evolution," according to the document.