News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, Mar. 3, 2014
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Billions of dollars have gone into the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River Site. The goal of the project is to turn weapon-grade plutonium into safer nuclear fuel for commercial reactors. The first of its kind facility in the United States was born out of a 2000 agreement with Russia. The agreement requires both United States and Russia to dispose of 68 metric tons of plutonium collectively, which is sufficient for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.
"A lot of folks say, 'Well, let's just throw it in the ground and bury it and treat it like waste,'" says Dr. Clint Wolfe, the director of the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken. "But [the governments] want to protect it from ever being made into a bomb again."
Dr. Wolfe, a nuclear advocate, is worried. The project and the thousands of local jobs it'll create are in trouble. Over the past couple of years the budget of the project has been cut and the mission has be delayed slightly.
"You're looking at somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000 jobs being lost if that MOX program were to disappear," says Dr. Wolfe, since studies have shown that every SRS job creates about 2.5 more jobs in the surrounding community.
The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor reports the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) sent a consultant to SRS just days ago to look at possibly shutting the project down. However, the move might instead signify a new contracting strategy.
"The consultant sent to MOX this week is retired DOE official David Darugh, who notably was chief counsel during the shutdown of the Superconducting Supercollider Project in Texas, which was cancelled by Congress in the 1990s," the article reads.
Cost overruns and construction delays have been pointed out by recent government report. A Government Accountability Office report released in February urges DOE to analyze the root causes of cost increases and develop better cost estimates.
Right now, construction is expected to cost about $7.7 billion. There was a $3 billion cost increase in 2012 alone. Last spring, the NNSA estimated that the life-cycle cost of the project could be $24 billion.
"The cost overruns have got to be addressed, but the bottom line is that it's so important for non-proliferation and for environmental clean-up," says Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC), a staunch supporter of MOX.
Congressman Wilson fears President Barack Obama might slash MOX when he unveils his budget on Tuesday.
In last year's DOE budget proposed by the White House, MOX was identified.
"This current plutonium disposition approach may be unaffordable, though, due to cost growth and fiscal pressure," the budget read. "While the Administration will assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies, resulting in a slowdown of MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility construction in 2014, it is nonetheless committed to the overarching goals of plutonium disposition program to: 1) dispose of excess U.S. plutonium; and 2) achieve Russian disposition of equal quantities of plutonium."
"1,200 jobs could immediately be affected [if MOX is terminated]," says Wilson.
Wilson says the termination of MOX might also further harm U.S.-Russia relations, which are already being tested by the situation in Ukraine. Wilson says going forward with MOX would encourage "rule of law" in Russia.
Still, Wilson and Wolfe are worried.
"The least expensive way forward to accomplish what we need to accomplish is to finish the MOX project," says Wolfe. "It's over 60% complete."