Aiken County Council member Chuck Smith said news about President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal to freeze the Savannah River Site's MOX program “smells like Yucca Mountain, part two.”

The proposal states the MOX facility – which is designed to turn 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium into nuclear fuel – is too expensive, based on a recent DOE study that estimates the life-cycle cost of the project could rise to $30 billion.

The proposal suggests placing the program in a “cold stand-by” to allow the National Nuclear Security Administration to search for cheaper options.

The news reaffirms two main concerns for Aiken: Being stranded with more unwanted nuclear materials and a significant loss of jobs.

Smith referenced Yucca because the federal government's plans to use the location as a waste repository were canceled when funding was cut in 2010. The decision left several DOE sites holding unwanted waste, including SRS.

“It has the same smell as Yucca, and it looks to be politically motivated,” said Smith, who is also vice chair of the Energy Communities Alliance – an organization that is prevalent in any community that houses a Department of Energy site.

He added, “The SRS Community Reuse Organization is having several discussions about this, but the message Washington is sending to South Carolina is very unclear right now.”

Economic Development Partnership Director Will Williams added that DOE should honor its commitment to SRS and not leave the plutonium sitting at the Site.

Williams and Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jameson have been briefed by DOE officials from Washington, D.C., and various MOX stakeholders on the issue and what impact it might have on employment.

“Through these briefings, we are aware that the South Carolina Congressional Delegation is working behind the scenes to actively craft and negotiate a solution,” Jameson said. “The information that is available about MOX to local leaders since the president's budget was released is incomplete and sketchy.”

Information on a potential solution is scarce; however, Jameson added that “the action steps will be better defined in a few weeks.”

The well-known statistic that one job at SRS represents 2.5 jobs in Aiken County has organizations like the economic partnership on edge. The MOX project alone employs about 1,800 people at SRS which, if extrapolated by the statistic, translates to about 4,500 jobs in the County.

“What is very clear is that anything less than completing construction and then operating the MOX facility will impact current and future employment significantly in a negative way for our community,” Williams said.

In terms of employment, Jameson added there appears to be more questions than answers right now.

“No one in DOE even has an approved definition for 'cold stand-by,'” he said. “It appears that MOX is a pawn in a world championship chess match. Chess is a slow game. This will be a long, tedious process.”

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard.