We haven't heard the last from South Carolina's senators on their effort to keep a planned multibillion-dollar nuclear facility in their state.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last week lifted his hold on Ernest Moniz's nomination to become the next Energy secretary, but he said he continues to push the Obama administration to demonstrate its commitment to completing a proposed addition to the Savannah River Site.
The Senate is slated to vote on Moniz as soon as today after it completes work on the Water Resources Development Act, and he is expected to win broad support.
Observers suggest a lower-profile administration post -- perhaps the next head of the National Nuclear Security Administration -- could fall victim to a Graham hold if he does not extract the concessions he is after.
At issue is the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site, which was initially proposed during the Clinton administration to turn weapons-grade plutonium into usable fuel but has been plagued by cost overruns. President Obama in his fiscal 2014 budget request proposed a study into alternatives to the MOX site, raising fears that he would abandon the project.
Environmentalists say that the facility is little more than lucrative home-state pork Graham is trying to protect and that its projected cost increases demand an examination of alternative ways to deal with the 34 tons of excess plutonium.
"It clearly makes sense for the administration to re-evaluate and try to determine if it's time to fish or cut bait," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst on nuclear issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Instead of reprocessing the plutonium into MOX fuel -- which no companies have committed to buying -- Young said it could be "immobilized" by oxidizing the plutonium and combining it with other highly radioactive waste that could be stored in glass or ceramic rods, similar to other types of spent nuclear fuel.
It remains to be seen, he said, whether such an approach would run into problems that have plagued the search for a permanent disposal site for other spent nuclear fuel, which had been slated for Yucca Mountain, Nev., until plans for that site were abandoned. But he said a study into MOX alternatives could consider such issues.
Graham has said it would be too expensive to abandon the MOX project, but he acknowledged more should be done to bring down its costs, which have grown to nearly $8 billion from initial estimates around $5 billion. He said talks with the White House were ongoing but declined to provide specific details.
"I don't want to jinx things," Graham said yesterday when asked why he would not elaborate on the negotiations.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who pressed Moniz on MOX during a confirmation hearing last month and has been involved with the White House talks, said the goal is to get the administration to "live up to its agreement" to build the facility because "it's the only facility that can actually take the weapons-grade plutonium and make it into commercial use."
Scott was less enthusiastic about where the negotiations stand.
"We're still measuring our progress, but it's barely discernible right now," Scott told E&E Daily outside the Capitol yesterday. "We've got a little ways to go still."
Graham said he lifted the Moniz hold out of deference to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor's impressive qualifications and the need to have a permanent boss at DOE. But he noted that other nominees could face holds if the MOX issue remains unresolved (E&ENews PM, May 14).
"I'll have other leverage points, and moving him forward would be OK," Graham told reporters yesterday evening. "I've got their attention, and we'll see where this goes.
"We're working on it. I think it will all turn out well for everybody."
Is NNSA the next target?
If it doesn't work out, Young said, Graham could place a hold on Madelyn Creedon, who's rumored to be Obama's nominee to replace Neile Miller, the acting administrator for NNSA.
"That would make the most sense because NNSA is the agency for the MOX program," Young said.
Creedon has had a lengthy, high-profile career on and off Capitol Hill, having served as counsel for the Democratic staff on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She was confirmed as assistant secretary of Defense for global strategic affairs in 2011.
Obama tapped Miller to lead the agency in May 2010, and she was confirmed by the Senate three months later (Greenwire, May 28, 2010). As the acting administrator, Miller focuses on matters of management and policy across NNSA.
Prior to joining NNSA, Miller served as the Energy Department's budget director. She also oversaw NNSA and the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction activities as senior program examiner for the Office of Management and Budget from 2004 to 2007.
Miller served as associate director in the Office of Nuclear Energy in the George W. Bush administration and worked on nuclear nonproliferation issues at the Congressional Research Service.
Young said former Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, a commander in the Air Force Global Strike Command, has also been mentioned as a possible replacement for Miller.
Although speculation surfaced that money was possibly shifted in Obama's fiscal 2014 budget proposal away from certain DOE programs toward the MOX plant, NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said no such changes had occurred.
"The request is the request, and it hasn't changed," McConaha said in an email.
Once Moniz is confirmed, two of the three main energy and environment posts for Obama's second term will be filled; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell took office last month. U.S. EPA remains without a permanent administrator, and Republicans say they have not yet decided whether to obstruct the confirmation of air chief Gina McCarthy to lead the agency (see related story).