Lindsey Graham, Greenville

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks in Greenville on Monday, addressing a handful of national topics. In a pre-speech interview, Graham in part discussed the Savannah River Site and the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

GREENVILLE — South Carolina's senior senator, who often stumps for the Savannah River Site, has little faith in the U.S. Department of Energy's abilities going forward.

"No, I'm not confident the DOE can do almost anything," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday during a question-and-answer session with reporters. "I'm not confident at all."

That lack of trust casts a dark shadow over the prospective expansion of plutonium pit production, an enduring weapons mission of which SRS is an integral part, according to a joint recommendation from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"The pit production mission, we'll see how real that is," the Republican senator said Monday.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores. The NNSA – a semiautonomous DOE agency – and the DOD want to produce 50 pits a year at SRS and another 30 a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Graham's expressed reservations on Monday echo remarks made by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., late last year.

At the time – while quizzing the president's pick for the NNSA's second-in-command spot – Scott said he was "skeptical" of pit production buildout at SRS. Scott said he was leery because of the DOE's "inconsistent track record with major projects."

Getting pit production going at the Site – 80 pits a year are needed by 2030, per the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review – involves a serious rework of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a Graham-favored venture designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel.

Graham has previously explained the MOX mission as turning swords into plowshares.

The NNSA terminated MOX on Oct. 10, 2018, five months after U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry told congressional defense committees the project would be axed.

Graham still considers the termination a major blunder: "By abandoning MOX when it's 70 percent complete makes no sense to me," he said Monday. Three months ago, the senior senator called MOX cancellation a "colossal mistake."

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the SRS management and operations contractor, was recently tapped to lead initial SRS pit production efforts: transitioning MOX and doing conceptual design work for the "Savannah River Pit Production Plant," among other things, a SRNS spokesperson has told the Aiken Standard.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management is the SRS landlord.

Graham was in Greenville on Monday to speak at the Poinsett Club.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin