Ten years ago Tuesday, the federal government had high hopes for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX.
Photos in the Aiken Standard archives from the groundbreaking show local and federal officials gleefully clinging to shovels. News reports listed completion would be in 2014 and production commencing by 2016.
"The start of construction of the U.S. MOX facility helps us fulfill an international nonproliferation agreement and marks a major step forward in our efforts with Russia to dispose of surplus weapon-grade plutonium so that it can never be used again for nuclear weapons," William Tobey, a deputy administrator with the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, said in an Aug. 1, 2007 news release.
The tone, however, has markedly changed now that a decade has passed.
Funding cuts, legal wrangling and other efforts aimed at killing MOX have been commonplace during the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations.
The S.C. Attorney General's Office, which in February 2016 sued the federal government over unfulfilled promises to dispose of defense plutonium, summed it up in an Aug. 1, 2017 court filing.
"The State believes DOJ counsel for the Federal Defendants have made a good faith effort to resolve the pending issues," State Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote in a proposal for injunctive relief.
"Unfortunately, their clients appear to have no interest in working with the State to mutually resolve these issues, apparently because they believe they have no incentive to do so," the filing continues. "Neither Congressional mandate nor even threat of enjoinment by this Court are enough to spur the Federal Defendants' cooperation with the State or compliance with (federal law)."
In a text order signed Aug. 1, U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs ordered the federal government to file a statement within 10 days setting forth how and when it will remove 1 metric ton of defense plutonium from the Savannah River Site.
Federal officials were supposed to file a statement by July 31, but failed to do so. Childs pulled no punches in her text order, rebuking the defendants for taking a "lackadaisical approach" in complying with a previous order setting the July 31 deadline.
The order comes as the funding debate over MOX persists, with the U.S. House, Senate and President Trump putting forward vastly different spending plans.
It also comes on the heels of state utilities pulling the plug on V.C. Summer in Fairfield County, another multi-billion nuclear venture, resulting in major job losses.
High hopes for MOX
The origins of MOX date to at least 1992, with a joint Russia-German study that explored producing mixed oxide fuel for commercial use, according to a 1995 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
AREVA North America, which is part of a consortium building the MOX plant at SRS, states on its website that a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report cited two preferred methods of defense plutonium disposition – the MOX method or immobilizing and burying it.
The MOX method involves blending defense plutonium with uranium oxide, which renders the weapons-grade component inert, allowing what's left to be used in commercial reactors.
MOX reduces the weapons-grade material from 93 to 5 percent plutonium, making it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to reverse-engineer into a nuclear weapon, according to the AREVA site.
In 2000, constructing a MOX plant in the U.S. took on greater priority after the U.S. and Russia signed the Plutonium Management Disposition Agreement, or PMDA, when each nation pledged to dispose of 34 metric tons of defense plutonium. MOX emerged as the preferred method of plutonium disposal.
SRS was chosen as the lone site to build the MOX plant. It's modeled after AREVA's MELOX and La Hague facilities in France, which already supply MOX fuel, the AREVA site states.
An Aug. 2, 2007 story appearing in the Aiken Standard said the Aiken plant was expected to employ up to 800 people. AREVA says on its website that MOX today has 4,000 suppliers in 39 states.
The 2007 story also estimated total costs at $4.8 billion. MOX was projected to be finished by April 2014, with operations starting in September 2016.
Delays, cost overruns
At least 15 years have been added to the MOX construction timeline, according to public records. And depending on the source, as of today MOX is between 28 and 75 percent complete.
A DOE report from 2016 projects MOX won't be completed until 2048, with total costs mushrooming to nearly $17.17 billion. It said MOX is about 28 percent completed.
The same report lists a contractor's estimated completion date in 2029 and a $9.99 billion price tag.
The variance is largely due to projected cost increases, with the DOE predicting escalation at $5.1 billion versus CBI AREVA's estimate of $373 million, documents state.
During an Aiken Standard tour of SRS in May, the MOX facility's exterior structure appeared substantially complete. The newspaper was not allowed to take pictures nor was it permitted to tour the interior.
MOX supporters, including U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., continue to cite completion figures in the 70 to 75 percent range. Wilson has testified in several public hearings the facility is 70 percent complete, a point he reaffirmed in statement to the Aiken Standard.
"Ten years ago, by beginning construction of the MOX facility in Aiken, the United States established itself as a leader in national security, converting weapons grade plutonium into green fuel and upholding nuclear non-proliferation agreements with the Russian Federation," Wilson's statement said.
"Currently achieving 70 percent completion, MOX is a secure and sustainable option for weapons-grade plutonium and for upholding our national security," the statement continued.
Delays in MOX have had diplomatic consequences, consequences that won't be so easily resolved.
In 2016, Russia suspended participation in the PMDA, alluding to MOX delays. Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz with the NNSA, said in a previous conference call with reporters that MOX is only one of several reasons Russia cited for suspending the deal.
Klotz said Russia also was displeased with U.S. sanctions placed on it when Russia invaded Crimea. He also cited concerns over Russia's track record on civil rights.
Getting Russia back to the table faces further obstacles. Accusations of election meddling, the U.S. bombing of a Syrian air strip and new sanctions placed on Russia, Iran and North Korea this week are among them.
U.S. leaders general support the sanctions.
"I'm very pleased to see President Trump signed new sanction legislation against Russia, Iran and North Korea. All three regimes represent threats to world order and to our way of life. This was necessary," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement.
"As to Russia, this was long overdue as they have tried to turn American democracy upside down," the statement continued.
In some respects, the sloth-like progress of MOX is eerily similar to holdups at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Facility and Plant Vogtle, two regional nuclear plants where twin AP1000 reactors were being installed.
Both facilities are also billions over budget and years behind schedule. Westinghouse, project lead at both ventures, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2017, further fueling concerns.
V.C. Summer's minority owner Santee Cooper's decision to suspend operations and overall financial pressures at V.C. Summer prompted majority owner SCANA Corp. to seek project abandonment, resulting in thousands losing their jobs.
Toshiba, parent company of Westinghouse, has pledged $2.17 billion in guaranty payments. But Aiken County ratepayers will likely be left on the hook since SCANA has said refunds are unlikely.
As for Vogtle, Georgia Power has assumed direct management of the project. Toshiba has pledged $3.86 billion in guaranty payments to Vogtle, a news release states.
The major obstacle to MOX continues to be funding. In recent years, the facility has received bare bones allotments in the $340 million range annually.
Presidents Obama and Trump have both called for a termination of MOX, preferring downblending, or the dilute and dispose method. Trump's proposed 2018 budget would provide $270 million to shut down MOX and pursue downblending.
The latest House budget plan proposes $335 million, while the present Senate plan doesn't give a dime.
Introduced July 20 by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Senate Bill 1609 would make $1.85 billion available for defense nuclear nonproliferation, but the measure specifically exempts MOX.
"None of the funds provided under this heading, or in prior Acts that remain unobligated, shall be available for construction of Project 99–D–143, Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility," the Senate bill states.
Wilson noted the Senate plan differed from the House bill in that it was just filed. The House version is much further along the legislative process, he said.
MOX lawsuit update
Days after S. 1609 was introduced, Judge J. Michelle Childs, the federal judge hearing the pending MOX lawsuit, penned a scathing text order as part of a South Carolina lawsuit filed against the federal government.
Childs' order gives the DOE and other co-defendants until Aug. 11 to submit a statement about how they will comply with a previous order to remove 1 metric ton of defense plutonium from South Carolina.
She previously ruled the federal government is required to remove 1 metric ton per year as MOX remains incomplete, but struck down the state's efforts to recoup $1 million per day fines.
In documents filed by the state, the DOE and co-defendants requested another extension to Sept. 15 to comply with the judge's March 20 order.
According to the filing, the federal government said an attorney and a representative for the defendants would be out of the office for multiple dates in August and September.
Wilson, the S.C. Attorney General, said in court documents that the federal government is essentially stonewalling.
"The State believes the Federal Defendants' request for another extension to submit their statement to the Court on September 15 – which is approximately six months after this Court's March 20 order – is unreasonable given that their proposal should have been supported and near-ready for submission at the time it was presented to the State."
Judge Childs agreed.
"The court finds that Defendants' proposed September 15, 2017 deadline is not acceptable," the judge wrote.
"Although Defendants assert that a six-week delay is needed because a declarant and an attorney will be 'out of the office' for portions of August and September, Defendants fail to explain why the preceding four months and change was insufficient time for them," the order continued.
Wilson has filed a proposal for injunctive relief that calls for numerous requirements for the federal government to remove 1 metric ton from SRS within 60 days of a judge's order.
It also requires the removal of another ton of defense plutonium within two years, and a $1 million per day fine if that requirement isn't met.
Additionally, the proposed order says the federal government "shall diligently and in good faith" pursue construction of MOX. Judge Childs hasn't ruled on the proposed order.