Many see the MOX project as vital to keep America’s word, to use the time-tested expertise at the Savannah River Site and to turn destructive devices into fuel to power homes of the future.
Others see the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX project, as a huge waste of taxpayer money, making a product that no one wants at a place that should clean up its legacy waste rather than creating new.
Since its conception, the MOX project has had ardent critics and powerful boosters. But as the national budget crunch is seeing thousands of employees’ paychecks threatened and tens of millions of dollars in funding absent at SRS, what is the future of one of the largest capital projects in the United States?
On April 8, with the 2014 fiscal year budget, funding for the MOX project will be announced that will not only show its scope for the next year, but possibly if the project has a future, at all.
Currently, the project status is 60 percent complete, the main structure has a roof, but still has more than 100 construction openings. Currently, according to Shaw Areva Mox Services, pipe, HVAC systems and glovebox fire systems are currently being incorporated.
For more than a month, environmental groups have claimed MOX could face cuts as deep as 75 percent, something that could devastate the 2,000-plus workforce. Reports emanated from individuals who claim knowledge of National Nuclear Security Administration passback documents. Passbacks are budgetary decisions of the Office of Management and Budget. This document outlines the appropriations for federal agencies. NNSA’s passback was significantly delayed this year.
More recently, sources in Washington, D.C., and others with knowledge of the facility’s operations have told the Aiken Standard that cuts will be closer to 50 percent for the MOX project, with a near-75 percent cut overall to the NNSA’s Office of Fissile Materials Disposition. That office is responsible for all activities relating to the disposition of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, which are excess to U.S. national security needs. This includes MOX, projects at the Y-12 Complex in Tennessee and other work.
“I don’t know where that leaves (MOX),” said one source, who wished to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak publicly. “If appropriations stayed at that level, it’d take five years just to close (MOX).”
The appropriations to MOX has been a battle fought hard by South Carolina’s federal delegation, headed by senior Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham, christened Senator MOX by Friends of the Earth’s Tom Clements, described the embattled project as being of critical importance.
“MOX is our future!” he said. “Turning 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel is a national security imperative for me. We are inside the 10 yard line, and this is not the time to abandon the MOX program. If we abandon MOX, the Russians will deal with their 34 tons of weapons grade plutonium.”
Graham said that he has talked to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the final funding numbers for MOX, telling him “what kind of message would it send to abandon the MOX project” as the United States has an agreement with the Russian Federation?
“It makes no sense to abandon the program … it would be the most contrary message in the history of the world,” Graham said.
“While it’s clear that knowledge of world history is no requirement to be a senator, it is Sen. Graham’s unbridled support of MOX with no budget accountability that is the project’s undoing,” said Friends of the Earth’s Clements, a longtime MOX opponent.
Graham believes that, with President Barack Obama’s move toward reducing the nuclear arsenal, cutting funding to a program designed for nonproliferation would be counter-intuitive. Clements said funding should be focussed on remediating high-level liquid legacy waste.
“Distracted by ill-conceived projects like MOX, Sen. Graham and some in SRS management have taken their eyes off the critical cleanup mission at the site,” Clements said. “Given growing budget constraints, it’s time for the senator to get to work to secure adequate funding for the urgent cleanup effort at SRS, which will long remain the most important activity at the site.”
According to reports from Washington, it is believed that the funds earmarked for MOX are being moved toward programs maintaining and servicing nuclear armaments.
“Here’s the problem, the START treaty, reducing the number of launch vehicles, part of the deal was to modernize our nuclear weapons force,” Graham said of the funding shift. “That money was never made available, so that broke the deal.”
The 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), referred to by Graham, may be a candidate for what-could-have-been MOX project funding.
The treaty aims to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half and institute a new inspection and verification regime.”