Energy Dept. may see fines over MOX

AP FILE PHOTO U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has said MOX is the Obama Administration’s “preferred option,” but must be funded at significantly higher each levels by Congress to be effective.

The state of South Carolina may soon have to decide if it will fine the Department of Energy $1 million a day for missing milestones at the Savannah River Site’s MOX facility.

Jan. 1, 2016, was the agreed upon date set by the Department of Energy and former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges in 2002 for either 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium to be processed through the SRS Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or for 1 ton to be removed from South Carolina.

The facility is a critical part of the overall MOX program – the nation’s current pathway to meet its agreement with Russia which requires each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

Since neither action is expected to happen by the top of the year, the Palmetto State could impose fines of $1 million a day with a $100 million cap.

But Mark Powell, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, said it’s too early to determine if a deal needs to be renegotiated, or if the state will attempt to levy the penalties.

“The state is exploring various options. It would be premature and inappropriate to comment at this time,” Powell said.

Ongoing construction of the MOX building falls under the Savannah River Site’s work with the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, a semi-autonomous branch of the Department of Energy.

Francie Israeli, an NNSA press secretary, said the Energy Department is working to meet its commitment to the state and that “per the direction of Congress, the Department is continuing construction of the MOX facility.”

However, two studies conducted this year – one mandated by Congress and another commissioned by the DOE – have concluded that a downblending alternative would be cheaper and more viable than MOX.

One of the studies, conducted by Aerospace, states that the life cycle cost of the entire MOX method of plutonium disposition is $51 billion, compared to a $17 billion cost for downblending.

Rather than using multiple facilities to transform the plutonium into nuclear fuel, the downblending method would dilute the plutonium and dispose of it at a repository.

Part 2 of the Aerospace was released to Congress last month, but has yet to surface for public consumption. The study will look at several other MOX alternatives.

Once a “preferred alternative” is identified, DOE will announce its preference in a Federal Register notice, Israeli said.

“DOE will then publish a Record of Decision in a Federal Register notice announcing the final decision no sooner than 30 days after its announcement of a Preferred Alternative,” Israeli said.

The MOX project employs about 2,000 workers. Work is more than 70 percent complete, according CB&I MOX Services, the contractor over the project.

Derrek Asberry is the SRS beat reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the paper since June 2013. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.