Ex-appropriator laments ‘nuclear bridge to nowhere’

By Hannah Hess | 04/13/2016 07:15 AM EDT

As onetime chairman and as ranking member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, former Republican Rep. David Hobson sharply questioned the federal government’s plan to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina. Nine years and $4.5 billion later, the facility, designed to convert plutonium from nuclear weapons into commercial reactor fuel, remains far from completed.

As onetime chairman and as ranking member of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, former Republican Rep. David Hobson sharply questioned the federal government’s plan to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina.

Nine years and $4.5 billion later, the facility, designed to convert plutonium from nuclear weapons into commercial reactor fuel, remains far from completed. Estimates for finishing the job range from $3 billion to $9.4 billion and above, depending on whom you ask.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have again revived funding for the project, which the Obama administration has twice tried to kill, and Hobson is frustrated to see MOX gain a new set of unlikely allies: members of the House Freedom Caucus.


"I thought these people were people who are above parochial values, that they were for the good of the country," said Hobson, who retired in 2009 after representing Ohio for 18 years.

"This is a pork-barrel project," he said. "These people are supposed to be totally against pork, the old-style pork program. This is playing to their local constituency and not to the values that they supposedly espouse."

The project employs some 1,700 workers. It enjoys the backing of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, lawmakers from Georgia and Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Bob Brady, who supports the good-paying union jobs associated with construction.

President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget request asked for $270 million for MOX — $70 million below current funding levels and a proposed House spending bill — to start shutting down the plant.

The administration says it remains committed to the overall goal of disposing of excess weapons-grade plutonium in accordance with an agreement with Russia.

But the MOX approach would be significantly more expensive than anticipated, with a lifetime cost north of $30 billion, according to budget documents. It would also require an additional $800 million to $1 billion annually for decades (E&E Daily, Feb. 10).

Killing the project — dubbed the "nuclear bridge to nowhere" by some opponents — has proved tricky.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, last month added his signature to a letter asking appropriators to protect MOX. The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), asked appropriators to restore funding to $345 million.

Signers called the Obama administration’s plan to take a "dilute and dispose" approach to the excess plutonium "irresponsible," arguing that it would face technical, legal, regulatory and political challenges that the Department of Energy has failed to adequately address.

Three Republicans who signed the letter identify with the far-right House Freedom Caucus, a group that has threatened to derail the budget process over concerns about the deficit (E&E Daily, March 23). They include South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan and Georgia Reps. Jody Hice and Barry Loudermilk.

"The MOX facility at the Savannah River Site is nearly 70 [percent] complete, and the fact remains that it is the only viable option for disposing of our nation’s weapons-grade plutonium," Hice told E&E Daily.

"As such, the facility is critical to our national security, and given its singularly unique mission, my interest is in the security of our nation," he said, "not the location of the facility."

Loudermilk and Duncan did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

‘Might as well renegotiate’

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently accused the United States of not living up to its international obligation to destroy up to 34 metric tons of plutonium via MOX. He used the argument as an excuse for skipping the most recent Nuclear Security Summit, hosted in Washington, D.C.

Speaking to Russian media on April 7, Putin expressed concern that the dilute-and-dispose alternative preserves "what is known as the breakout potential; in other words, it can be retrieved, reprocessed and converted into weapons-grade plutonium again."

Citing Putin’s remarks, South Carolina Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott recently wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that efforts to abandon MOX are "short-sighted."

"We find it unfortunate that DOE’s short-sighted efforts to kill MOX have allowed President Putin — who is no friend of the United States and our foreign policy objectives — to claim the high ground about living up to international agreements," the duo wrote.

"We fear this Administration’s recent words and actions on MOX have unnecessarily harmed our nation’s long-time leadership role when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation."

Scott told E&E Daily last week, when asked about his commitment to seeing funding restored, that he was sitting down with representatives from MOX at the Capitol.

Opponents of the facility, however, point out that the project is so delayed that the federal government will have to renegotiate the terms of its treaty with Russia no matter what.

"They might as well renegotiate for a plan that’s going to be cheaper, faster and better for taxpayers," said Lydia Dennett, a researcher at the Project on Government Oversight focused on nuclear security.

Dennett said a portion of the plutonium in the deal with Russia is too impure to go through the facility. For commercial nuclear plants that currently run on uranium to start using the MOX fuel, they would have to undergo security upgrades, she said, making it hard to attract new customers.

"We call it the nuclear bridge to nowhere because it’s going to be producing a fuel that no one wants. There aren’t any potential customers for it. In fact, there’s a lot of safety testing to be done," Dennett said.

Repurposing the site

Meeting with Russian officials behind closed doors as a lawmaker, Hobson said he knew long ago that the project was ill-fated.

"The whole program has failed. There is no one, even with a subsidy, who is willing to buy the fuel from this facility," he said. "So why do you continue a facility that’s of no use in the future? Mainly because it just creates jobs."

Ed Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said nuclear power supporters who believe plutonium is an asset for power production also helped drive support for MOX.

"The problem with that is, it’s not really an asset because you have to spend money to get the energy out. And that’s why MOX costs so much money," Lyman said.

Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is less enthusiastic about plutonium. With more foreign shipments arriving on the shores of her state, Haley recently expressed fears that South Carolina could become a "permanent dumping ground" for nuclear material, with no foreseeable path out of the state.

DOE has since announced plans to ship plutonium out of South Carolina. Still, Haley intends to move forward with a lawsuit to collect fines for delays (Greenwire, March 30).

Lyman suggests there may still be a cost-effective way for South Carolina and the federal government to make use of the facility. MOX could be a unique asset for the international community to train nuclear security guards in a secure setting.

The federal government has provided funding and expertise to set up nuclear training and support centers in other countries, known as Centers of Excellence, but it has not established such a center here at home, Lyman notes.

MOX is a nearly complete, industrial-scale building designed to meet stringent nuclear security requirements that has not yet been contaminated with nuclear material. Lyman said "force-on-force" training, a performance exercise that helps ready personnel for threats, might be a more realistic and useful purpose for the over-budget facility.

"Doing so would not only make good on the promise of jobs for the regional economy for decades to come but also would reinforce the Savannah River Site’s role as a leading institution promoting nuclear security worldwide," he noted in a blog post.

The Project on Government Oversight supports the idea, Dennett said.

Hobson, who knows the budgetary ins and outs of DOE’s long-standing effort to mop up after the Cold War, also thinks Lyman’s suggestion is promising. He said the government ought to find an alternative use for the facility, such as a scientific or industrial project.

"Once they contaminate that site," Hobson said, "we’re in big trouble."