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Aiken Standard - Officials React to Budget Proposal that Would Freeze MOX

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By Derrek Asberry

News that the MOX facility at the Savannah River Site could go into a "cold stand-by" has given MOX naysayers reasons to rejoice and has left MOX advocates with a sour taste in their mouths.

President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal would essentially freeze funding for the MOX project so National Nuclear Security Administration -- or NNSA -- officials can explore less costly options to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

The Aiken Standard breaks down what Obama has proposed, what interest groups and congressional leaders have to say about it and a brief look into the program's uncertain future.

Obama's Proposal And NNSA Comments

Obama's budget proposal stated the MOX program will go into a cold stand-by, which freezes funding but leaves it open as a future option. The budget cites the program's cost overruns and delays as the reason to explore other options.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that the project is $3 billion over budget, costing an estimated $7.7 billion. Most recently, the Department of Energy revealed the results of a study last month that estimates the project could have a life-cycle cost of $30 billion.

"As part of an ongoing analysis of options to dispose of surplus plutonium, the budget provides funding to place the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in cold stand-by, while the NNSA evaluates alternative plutonium disposition options that will achieve a safe and secure solution more quickly and cost-effectively," the president's budget states.

NNSA added, "the cost has gotten way beyond what we can ask taxpayers to pay. Over the next 12 to 18 months, an analysis will be made to see if the facility is the best option, and we will still be working with the contractor on this issue."

Interest Groups

The Union of Concerned Scientists celebrated Obama's budget proposal. Senior scientist Edwin Lyman said DOE "has already wasted billions on this risky project."

"It's time to pursue a cheaper and safer alternative," Lyman added. "Congress should follow the administration's lead and terminate this ill-advised program."

"The shutdown of the project must be carried out quickly while DOE immediately initiates options to dispose of plutonium as waste," Sierra Club member Tom Clements added.

Also among supporters of the decision is Friends of the Earth, an organization dedicated to preserving the environment. Representative Katherine Fuchs said she hopes the decision will also pass through Congress.

"Congress should follow the president's lead in redirecting funding to the search for faster, less expensive technologies to dispose of plutonium," Fuchs said.

Congressional Leaders

While several groups approve of the budget proposal, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., have all released statements disagreeing with the decision.

Graham, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he plans to address the issue with other members of the committee.

"(Obama's) decision to dramatically reduce funding for the MOX program to a point that raises serious questions about its viability represents a fundamental breach of trust with the residents of South Carolina," Graham said.

Scott added, "The administration is also breaking an agreement with the people of South Carolina, who agreed to host the MOX facility under the impression the nuclear material would be processed into usable fuel for commercial power reactors -- not sit in South Carolina indefinitely."

Wilson agreed and added that the country should continue the program to ensure that Russia holds up its end of the bargain by disposing of another 34 metric tons of plutonium.

"It is clear the Obama Administration has no intention of carrying out a foreign policy that demands international respect. Requiring Russia to cooperate and dispose of their nuclear bomb should not be up for debate," Wilson said.

What Now?

During a speech at the Aiken Republican Club meeting on Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley said DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz told her that MOX was too expensive for them to continue to pay for it.

The next step, she said, is working with Graham and Scott to preserve jobs and find new job opportunities.

As for the plutonium, Haley said she made it clear to Moniz that she didn't want to see SRS turn into Yucca Mountain. Even though Moniz has said the project is stalled, not stopped, Haley said the conversation should still be about moving the waste out.

"I think this is a conversation that will continue on," Haley said. "It's one that I'll continue to talk to the federal delegation about because they are on the front lines on this, and it's one that we think is very important to the state of South Carolina."

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