By Meg Kinnard
Republican senators from South Carolina and Georgia have called on the Obama administration to continue funding a program to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, saying that slowing or ending the project would harm international and domestic relationships.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina and Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia wrote in a letter sent this week to President Obama that efforts to slow funding for the mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel program could hurt both states' relationships with the federal government.
"Your decision violates the commitments that were made to South Carolina and jeopardizes a 60-year partnership between the Savannah River Site and the state," the senators wrote. "We will not allow this ill-conceived plan to proceed."
The MOX plant is under construction at the Savannah River Site, a sprawling complex saddling the South Carolina-Georgia border where nuclear weapons components were once made. Work at the site, which has long employed thousands of workers from both states, now focuses on research and environmental MOX as part of a nonproliferation effort. The United States and Russia have committed to disposing of at least 34 metric tons each of weapons-grade plutonium - an amount equivalent to enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
The plant is about 60 percent complete, but the project has undergone years of cost overruns and delays. Last month, the Government Accountability Office said the plant is $3 billion over budget, now costing an estimated $7.7 billion. Construction began in 2007, and the GAO also forecast that the MOX facility wouldn't be up and running until 2019 - three years later than originally planned.
The letter comes as senators approved on Thursday the nomination of physics professor Ernest Moniz as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the project. Graham has been vocal of his opposition to the nomination in protest of Obama's plan to cut about $200 million from the MOX project and delayed a vote on Moniz's nomination for three weeks. Scott cast the only vote opposing Moniz's nomination in the Senate Energy Committee.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given good marks to progress on the project for three years in a row, and contractor Shaw Areva MOX Services noted this week that workers have logged more than 15 million consecutive work hours without a lost workday due to injury.
But MOX has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. MOX Services has said negotiations are under way with several utility companies interesting in buying the fuel, but none has officially signed on.
In its recent budget request to Congress, the Obama administration said that high costs "may make the project unaffordable" and that it would consider other possible ways to honor the agreement with Russia and dispose of plutonium. But backing down on the MOX program at this point, the senators warned, could result in Russia not holding up its end of the nonproliferation agreement.
"Delaying plutonium disposition sends a strong signal to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world community that the U.S. is walking back on its support for nuclear nonproliferation," the senators wrote.
On Wednesday, acting U.S. Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the administration has been clear it needs to be a good steward of taxpayer money and see whether there is a better way to honor the disposition agreement.
"We are looking at all options, including MOX," Poneman said to reporters in Washington just after a U.S. Senate budget hearing.