Members of the Aiken County Legislative Delegation are unsurprised but disappointed — to use state Sen. Tom Young's words — about President Donald Trump's request to close the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site.
Trump's fiscal year 2019 budget request, released last week, allots $220 million for the orderly and safe closure of MOX, a facility that would, upon completion, turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.
The budget request includes $59 million for dilute and dispose, an equally controversial MOX alternative that requires mixing plutonium with inert material and burying it elsewhere. Dilute and dispose, often referred to as downblending, is the National Nuclear Security Administration's preferred method, according to the agency's stand-in chief, Steven Erhart.
But none of this is more or less new. This year is not the first time Trump has tried to kill the over-budget MOX project, and it's not the first time downblending has been floated as the right answer. Former President Barack Obama tried shutting down MOX, too.
The Aiken County legislators know this: State Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken, said he was "not terribly surprised" the president's request disfavors MOX.
"We've been down this road before," Blackwell said.
When asked how he felt about the budget request, state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, used the word "disappointed."
"MOX has been promised," Clyburn said, "and the job has to be completed."
Experts have placed MOX completion at or around 70 percent.
Protecting MOX means securing funding. The project has consistently received more than $300 million a year from federal appropriators.
"We have strong fighters in our corners," Blackwell said.
Two weeks ago, Graham said he would put up "one hell of a fight" for MOX. But Graham has also said MOX is the poster child of what's wrong with government: "If I had to explain to somebody from Mars what's wrong with the federal government, I'd use the MOX program as an example."
Young agreed with the latter sentiment.
"Some of the decisions made with this project defy common sense," the Aiken Republican said, adding that it is especially frustrating to watch "special interests" argue and influence the overall mission: ridding the state of its stored defense plutonium.
Young is a member of the South Carolina Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council.
Trump's budget request is exactly that — a request, which means MOX termination is far from promised.
The president's budget will not go untouched moving forward. The U.S. House and Senate budget committees will have their hands in the process. So will appropriation committees. Final budget approval is a process that goes through both chambers and across the president's desk.
State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, called Trump's budget a "wish list" for that very reason.
"Congress will decide the fate of MOX as it did every time President Obama tried to kill it," Taylor said. "Hopefully Congress will wisely decide to finish the MOX project..."
Clyburn concurred: "I hope there will be some adjustment where MOX can be funded. ... I don't think it would come to an abrupt end through a budget statement."
Ending MOX is especially contentious in Aiken County and nearby Georgia because of the project's economic influence. Clyburn described MOX's economic impact as "tremendous."
The MOX project employs approximately 2,000 people.
A 2017 SCGNAC MOX review document states shutting down MOX would be a "crippling blow" to the state's economy. As such, Blackwell said MOX mercuriality keeps involved communities — Aiken — on edge.
"It really makes it difficult for those people that work out there," he said.