MOX Welding DOE Budget Justification

A welder works at the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken County.

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site could be fully shuttered as early as 2021, U.S. Department of Energy fiscal year 2019 budget documents reveal.

If the 2019 budget request, which includes $220 million to terminate MOX, is approved by Congress, the DOE would "direct" the project's prime contractor – MOX Services – to develop a termination plan, according to DOE budget justification documents.

Creating that plan could take up to 90 days.

The U.S. Department of Energy fiscal year 2019 Congressional budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The prospective plans would include how to secure information, materials and equipment at the job site to "protect government assets" and ensure the safety of on-site workers, the documents continue.

Contracts would then be killed: "In general, the contractor will begin termination of the sub-contracts and leases," the documents read. Some contracts would be seen to completion if cost effective. No new procurements, though, would be pursued.

The DOE would begin negotiating final shutdown costs at that point, the documents state. 

The MOX venture – a billions-over-budget SRS facility that, upon completion, would turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel – employs approximately 2,000 people.

A final estimate for complete shutdown and total contract termination is expected by late 2018, and in fiscal year 2019 "the administration will continue termination activities," according to the documents.

The requested nuclear nonproliferation sub-budget reflects a .9 percent decrease compared to actual fiscal year 2017 funding. The DOE attributes this to potentially ending MOX construction and going forward with dilute and dispose, also known as downblending.

The budget request allocates almost $60 million to dilute and dispose, the longstanding MOX alternative that involves mixing plutonium with inert material and burying it elsewhere. Steven Erhart, the acting National Nuclear Security Administration chief until this week, said dilute and dispose is the method he prefers.

Erhart has said dilute and dispose is the objectively cheaper and faster way to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium, a reciprocal commitment made between the United States and Russia in 2000.

President Donald Trump's budget request – titled "An American Budget" – said shutting down MOX would save the federal government upward of $12 billion. In the budget documents, the DOE reaffirms a 2016 project oversight study that stated MOX would cost a total $17.2 billion to complete.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, both South Carolina Republicans, are pro-MOX. 

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has said discontinuing work at MOX is a "bad idea." Several Aiken County Legislative Delegation members said they are not happy, but unsurprised, with the MOX shutdown request.

Colin Demarest is a reporter with Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since November 2017. He is a New Jersey native and received his B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin