WASHINGTON — A project at the Savannah River Site to convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel would be shelved under the fiscal 2015 budget proposal the Obama administration released Monday.
The proposed budget for the U.S. Energy Department would put the troubled and unfinished Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, on hold while an alternative method for disposing of the plutonium is studied.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is seeking a safe and secure option that would dispose of the plutonium "more quickly and cost effectively," according to the budget outline. The proposal reflects President Barack Obama's policy priorities for fiscal 2015 and is usually altered by Congress.
The Energy Department is requesting $311 million for fissile materials disposition, a 41 percent decrease from fiscal 2014. The decrease reflects the decision to put MOX into "cold standby," according to the agency's budget document. Cold standby allows for maintaining the plant for later use, if needed.
"The department remains committed to plutonium disposition and its obligations under the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement and will continue to engage with Russia during this analysis," according to the Energy Department budget request.
The agency calls the agreement a key component of arms control and nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
The South Carolina congressional delegation has battled for years to keep the MOX project on track, despite auditing reports saying it's three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget. On Tuesday, Republican members of the delegation said the proposal to mothball the facility has international implications.
"The president is failing to uphold vital nonproliferation agreements and ongoing environment cleanup missions by essentially terminating MOX at the Savannah River Site," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale. "This project plays an integral role in honoring international agreements with Russia. Requiring Russia to cooperate and dispose of their nuclear bombs should not be up for debate."
Sen. Tim Scott said the decision signals a willingness to break an agreement with Russia to dispose of 68 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, half of which is located in Russia.
"The administration is also breaking an agreement with the people of South Carolina, who agreed to host the MOX facility under the impression the nuclear material would be processed into usable fuel for commercial power reactors — not sit in South Carolina indefinitely," Scott said. "The federal government could in fact have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the state if this project is not completed."
Sen. Lindsey Graham called the budget proposal an "injustice."
"This cannot stand. Make no mistake about it, President Obama's budget submission to Congress is both irresponsible and reckless," Graham said. "His decision to dramatically reduce funding for the MOX program to a point that raises serious questions about its viability represents a fundamental breach of trust with the residents of South Carolina."
Opponents of the MOX facility applauded the administration's proposal.
"This is only a request, but if it goes through, MOX is dead," said Tom Clements, a nuclear adviser to the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.
Clements has estimated that about $5 billion has been spent so far on the MOX program and that another $22 billion would be required to continue the project over the next 20 years. No utilities have stepped forward to offer nuclear reactors to use any MOX fuel, Clements said, which has made construction of the $8 billion MOX plant a facility without customers.
"South Carolina was so stupid for continuing to allow ourselves to take this deadly, toxic waste into our state with no exit strategies and no guarantee it was ever going to work or be totally funded," said Susan Corbett, chairwoman of the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. "We predicted this 10 years ago, and it is so sad to see all this money has been wasted."
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, said converting the plutonium into something that can't be stolen or reused in weapons is a laudable long-term goal, but MOX would have increased the risk of theft in the short term during processing, transport or storage.
He said he hopes cold standby would prevent the addition of more equipment to the facility, which would only increase costs if the government decides to use the building for another purpose.
"We don't have the details of the budget yet, but it's extravagant to maintain a building that is not being used," Lyman said.