Savannah River Site

An aerial view of the Mixed Oxide, or MOX, fuel fabrication facility depicted at the bottom of this courtesy photo also offers a glimpse of the AP 1000 reactors in the distance at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Georgia.

As the federal budget process plods along, MOX continues to receive mixed signals from lawmakers.

Also known as the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, the MOX project continues to make progress, its exterior facade largely completed. Unofficial estimates place facility completion between 70 and 75 percent.

Mixed Oxide is becoming a mixed bag, however, with Capitol Hill budget writers presenting different spending plans.

The U.S. House Appropriations Committee in its 2018 Energy and Water Development funding bill provides $340 million. The figure is considered minimal by MOX standards, but keeps construction continuing for another year.

A markup bill by U.S. Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also uses $340 million.

A markup is essentially a revised bill containing amendments inserted by a committee. Thornberry's markup bill is 698 pages long.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget calls for a MOX shutdown.

Trump's budget included for pursuing downblending of defense plutonium in lieu of MOX, which would convert defense plutonium into commercial uses.

Jim Marra, executive director of the Center for Nuclear Technology Awareness, or CNTA, said he was encouraged to see the $340 million figure in the House Appropriations bill, but said $270 million is not sustainable.

Also, he said, the $9 million downblending number isn't close to what's needed to pursue that alternative method of plutonium disposal.

"We want to make sure there's a viable and objective path going forward," Marra said. "At this stage in the game, continuing MOX is what's needed. It (MOX) is almost a completed structure. It has walls, a roof. Kicking the can down the road is not the way to do it."

Tom Clements with the nuclear watchdog group Savannah River Site Watch disagrees, calling MOX a "wasteful" project that should be shut down.

“Given that continuation of the mismanaged MOX project is facing growing opposition in Congress, it appears that a consensus is building around its termination,” Clements said in a statement.

“The Trump administration’s position that MOX must be terminated has emboldened fiscal conservatives to find a way to begin the orderly shutdown of the mismanaged and wasteful project starting later this year," Clements continued.

The Thornberry markup directs the Secretary of Energy to continue "construction and project support activities" relating to MOX.

But it also provides several escape routes for Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, a Trump appointee, to cease construction.

These waivers include finding alternative options for plutonium disposition or if there isn't a fixed-price contract for MOX.

The Secretary of Energy can also halt MOX based on cost in certain conditions, as well as certification of removing defense plutonium from South Carolina, according to the markup.

In April, a federal judge ruled the U.S. government is legally bound to ship 1 metric ton of defense plutonium per year from the Savannah River Site, as stipulated in a currently suspended nuclear disposition deal with the Russians.

The ruling, though, stopped short of imposing any penalties for failing to comply.

Lawyers have been given until July 31 to craft a statement that will be used to frame the formal order, court records state. The statement had not been filed as of Wednesday.