Savannah River Site (copy)

An aerial view of the Mixed Oxide, or MOX, fuel fabrication facility is depicted at the bottom of this courtesy photo. 

The House passed the consolidated National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday, setting the budget for national defense activities including continued congressional funding for the Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication facility, or MOX.

The bill’s passage affirms legislative support for the MOX project at SRS, despite of opposition from both Presidents Obama and Trump. The facility is years overdue and billions of dollars over budget, prompting many community and watchdog organizations to label it a “boondoggle.”

MOX is meant to create useable fuel for commercial nuclear facilities from weapons-grade plutonium. Construction started after the MOX method was chosen by the United States as part of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Russia in 2000. Each nation committed to permanent demilitarization of 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium.

The NDAA budgets about $340 million for construction in fiscal year 2018, similar to previous years’ budgets. Representative Joe Wilson, R-S.C., supported the bill.

“The defense bill represents a huge win for South Carolina, one of the nation’s proudest military states, because it authorizes funding for vital investments… such as the continued construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility,” he said in a press release.

The facility was originally slated to be constructed by 2014, but current estimates by contract CB&I Areva MOX Services suggest the facility is roughly 70 percent complete. The contractor estimates construction could be complete by 2028 with proper funding, but the National Nuclear Security Administration disagrees.

According to commissioned government reviews of MOX, the facility still remains below 40 percent complete. The NNSA, a semi-autonomous arm of the Department of Energy that oversees much of the nation’s nuclear weapons operations, said the facility would not be complete until the late 2040s, more than 25 years behind schedule.

They also reported life-cycle costs would be tens of billions of dollars over the originally projected price tag. Areva MOX Services disagrees. The contractor filed a lawsuit accusing the NNSA of manipulating requirements and creating obstacles that slowed construction progress. The NNSA maintains that the contractor and design issues are to blame for the cost and timeline overruns.

Rick Lee, chairman of the S.C. Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council, addressed Bob Raines of the NNSA at its October meeting. He asked why the contractor still had the job if its performance was so poor. Raines said the contract process is complex and much of the equipment in the design is proprietary.

The NNSA, though, is pursuing an alternative method to dispose of plutonium called dilute and dispose, or downblending. That method became the preferred alternative to MOX after a DOE announcement last year, posted in the Federal Register. The NNSA maintains that downblending is safer and more cost effective than MOX.

The consolidated NDAA must now go to the Senate for a vote before being sent to the president. A timeline for that vote was not immediately available.

Thomas Gardiner is a freelance writer for the Aiken Standard. He is a 2016 graduate of USC Aiken.