Plans to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel at the Savannah River Site have been described as unfeasible, particularly because of a price tag of $30 billion.
But that projected cost appears in a study that inexplicably has not been released to the public. In February, the U.S. Department of Energy – or DOE – reported that it had conducted an assessment of the nuclear fuel facility that could generate Mixed Oxide Fuel – or MOX – at SRS and concluded the entire program would cost $30 billion over its lifetime. And while agency officials told the Aiken Standard they would be releasing the study, they didn’t have an exact timeline for when it will be released.
The MOX project – and the thousands of jobs associated with it – have already been threatened after President Barack Obama’s 2015 proposed budget essentially scrapped funding for it. The administration’s rationale seemed to be that it was not viable because of such a high cost, but it’s hard to be convinced such a course was warranted without being able to examine all the details.
The longer the agency waits to release the study, the easier it is to pin the project’s shelving on political reasons. Additionally, the state of South Carolina is now mired in a lawsuit against DOE, which has somewhat stalled the facility from entering the “cold standby” proposed by Obama’s budget.
News of the $30 billion lifecycle cost actually has also prompted AREVA – a partner of the MOX contractor building the facility – to discredit the study and say the price tag is more likely to be around $17 billion. The price dispute doesn’t negate the cost overruns the project has experienced in the past, but such a difference does warrant publication of an exact breakdown of costs by the DOE.
Determining what’s best for our community and our nation hinges on examining every aspect of the project. Right now, South Carolina is home to 13 metric tons of nuclear material that’s not intended to merely sit in canisters. It’s the federal government’s job to move forward with the more than a decade old MOX agreement or effectively explain why an alternative is needed. A clear justification that can be backed up with numbers is currently missing, which is a failure in leadership by the White House and Energy Department.