He didn't use the term “cold stand-by,” but Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz hinted that a freeze on construction at the Savannah River Site's Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, will likely be the next step if a sustainable funding stream for the project cannot be secured.

Moniz addressed the media Monday morning at the Site before taking a tour of the facilities.

During the address, he stood at the podium alongside S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

The group took up several Site-related issues during the press conference, with MOX taking up the lion's share of the conversation.

The MOX project

Despite last week's reports that MOX is the preferred pathway for plutonium disposition, Moniz said there have been no new developments.

“The issue is if there will be a sustainable funding stream. We charged the contractors to look at a different track, depending on what the funding is and its adequacy,” said Moniz. “In the end, if the budgets don't support construction, we'll have to act accordingly.”

Graham, Scott and Wilson also spoke about the viability of the MOX program, each emphasizing their belief that it is the only logical solution for plutonium disposition.

Graham agreed that, moving forward, the contractor has to work harder to stay within budget and deadlines.

He added that he is anticipating the U.S. Senate will follow the U.S. House's lead on MOX. The House passed its Energy and Water Appropriations bill earlier this month, which provided $345 million for construction of the facility.

“The House did its part, and now it's up to the Senate to approve funding for MOX,” he said.

Nuclear waste/fuel

Moniz said the Energy Department is committed to cleaning the aging waste tanks and treating the hundreds of thousands of gallons of Cold War-era waste that are inside the tanks.

He added that the federal budget is getting tighter each year, which puts a strain on what DOE can do.

“We have uniquely-packaged waste at SRS that we will deal with, but we cannot violate the laws of physics or budget,” he said.

Haley referenced the nine-figure penalties that DOE would be forced to pay if waste treatment milestones are not met in the coming years.

“If they (DOE) said they're moving waste, we want to see that move forward,” she said.

The issue of highly-enriched uranium from Germany also came up.

Shipments of the material could wind up at SRS due to a long-standing agreement between the two countries.

Haley expressed concerns that there is no disposition plan for the material, which makes the issue a big concern.

“With no plan in line for it, my job is to ask, 'When does receiving new material end?'” she said.

Scott applauded Haley's initiative on the issue, stating that her leadership has been instrumental.

“(Gov. Haley) has stood in the gap and made sure the federal government and the federal delegation understands the necessity of getting things done in a timely fashion,” Scott said.

A national resource

While no concrete examples of new missions were mentioned, Moniz said the Site is seen as a valuable commodity, including the Savannah River National Lab, which he called a “national treasure.”

Moniz also mentioned the Site's H-Canyon facility – the only hardened nuclear chemical separations plant still in operation in the United States.

“H-Canyon is a unique resource and another example of the conversations that are going on about the future of the Site,” he said.

Graham added that, while he is fighting for MOX funding, he is also working on ways to bring new missions on board at the Site.

Wilson agreed and said he has first-hand knowledge of the Site's capabilities.

He added, “As the only member of Congress to have worked at the Site, I know how valuable and extraordinary the workforce is. That is why we continue to promote SRS and look for new missions.”

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June 2013. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him @DerrekAsberry.