Why Does Congress Continue to Fund This Boondoggle?
By: Lydia Dennett | July 21, 2016
We can’t afford it. The agency doesn’t want it. And it’s putting our nuclear material at risk. But year after year, Congress pours millions of dollars into a nuclear fuel production facility in South Carolina.
The continued funding of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in Aiken, South Carolina is an example of Washington dysfunction at its worst. The facility was designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors as part of a bilateral agreement with Russia. But in the 16 years since the agreement was signed, the project has become nothing more than the burial ground for billions of taxpayer dollars.
With the project’s rising costs, lack of customers, and the technical concerns associated with operating the MOX facility, why does Congress continue to fund the project? The answer comes in three parts: aggressive lobbying by the contractors building the facility, the parochial interests of Congressional members from South Carolina, and the Department of Energy’s failure to actively push for their preferred alternative.
MOX was originally expected to begin operations in 2006 and cost $4 billion to design, build, and operate for 20 years.
$5 billion has already been spent on construction, which is only 70 percent complete.
Current cost estimates for finishing the project fall anywhere between $25.1 billion and $110 billion, depending on annual appropriations from Congress.
In 2008 the project lost its only potential customer for the MOX fuel and hasn’t been able to find a single replacement.
In the event of a terrorist threat, U.S. regulations require nuclear facilities like MOX to be able to verify the presence of all nuclear materials within 72 hours. Yet CB&I AREVA MOX Services designed the facility in a way that couldn’t meet those requirements and estimates it will take 180 days—60 times the safety requirement—to physically verify the presence of all special nuclear materials at MOX.
Millions Spent on Lobbying Campaign
The multi-billion dollar contract for the construction of the MOX facility is managed by CB&I AREVA MOX Services, a partnership between two foreign companies: Chicago Bridge & Iron Works (CB&I) which is based in the Netherlands, and AREVA, a French company. AREVA successfully built and operates two MOX fuel facilities in France, and the U.S. MOX design is based on AREVA’s technology.
This technology dates back to the 1960s and has caused experts to raise concerns about the technical viability of the U.S. facility should it ever be completed and become operational. Furthermore, the French facilities were designed, built, and operated under very different regulatory requirements, leading Energy Department experts to conclude in 2014 that U.S. MOX “construction and operation still remains a significant risk.”
These concerns haven’t stopped both CB&I and AREVA from pouring millions of dollars into lobbying efforts aimed at making sure funding to the MOX facility keeps coming. In the first three months of 2016, the two companies spent over $700,000 lobbying issues including the continued funding of the MOX project. Additional lobbying support came from unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and industry groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute.
In 2015, CB&I and AREVA spent a total of $2.4 million lobbying the government on various issues, including the MOX project. That amount doubles when including other organizations that listed MOX as a lobbying objective.
Congress Supports South Carolina Pork
CB&I, AREVA, and the other pro-MOX groups were aided by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Tim Scott (R-SC), and Representatives Joe Wilson (R-SC), James Clyburn (D-SC), and Rick Allen (R-GA). These Members of Congress have done their best to support MOX. During the budget process this year, Wilson wrote a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development urging them to continue funding the MOX program. Clyburn and Allen also signed the letter.
Representative Clyburn has been a MOX supporter since his days serving on the Appropriations Committee, which helped him get support from the contractors designing and building MOX. In 2010 the nuclear safety manager for Shaw Areva Mox Services told the New York Times, “When it comes to nuclear power, Jim Clyburn is always on our side.”
In 2013, Senator Graham placed a hold on Secretary of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz until Moniz promised to finish the MOX plant. Graham eventually relented and removed the hold but continues to be one of the most outspoken MOX supporters. In March of this year, Senator Graham tweeted out a fact sheet of false propaganda about the program to his 49,000 followers. POGO debunked the information, citing official Energy Department documents and statements about the MOX project. We received no response from the Senator.
Energy Department Fails to Make the Case for MOX Alternatives
Finally, part of the blame rests on the Department of Energy. The Department has been trying to ditch the MOX project for years. In 2014, the agency asked Congress to put the project on “cold-standby” in order to look into alternative plutonium disposition methods. Congress ignored them and allocated $300 million to continue MOX construction.
Last year, the Energy Secretary stated the Department was beginning to shift their strategy away from MOX to a “must faster and cheaper” alternative. But the Energy Department was remarkably lackluster in trying to persuade Congress to change course. In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees directed the Energy Department to prepare an analysis of the “technical, regulatory, and political feasibility” of the MOX alternative by the end of October 2015. Much of the information requested by Congress can be found in various publically available Energy Department documents, yet as of Spring 2016, when this year’s National Defense Authorization Act was being drafted, the Department had not yet completed any such analysis.
So, it’s little surprise that Congress again included funding for the project in the FY2017 Appropriations Act over the strong objection of the President. In a statement on the bill, the White House wrote:
“It would be irresponsible for the Congress to require continued construction of this project. The alternative disposition method is expected to be significantly faster and less expensive than the wasteful approach the bill would mandate. Continuing to require construction would waste limited national security funds and force more pressing nuclear security needs to go unmet.”
Both the Department of Energy and Congress know that continuing to fund MOX at $340 million a year, as they did in the most recent funding bill, will push the total cost to $110 billion and delay completion to the year 2100. But with the Energy Department failing to push for its preferred alternative while the contractors push for continued funding, it’s no wonder taxpayers continue funding this multi-billion dollar boondoggle.