This is a story about the biggest, baddest earmark of all time.
It all began with good intentions. Back in 2000, the US and Russia agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium. The US decided to build a facility to convert the weapons-grade material into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The plant, located in South Carolina, was called the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), and was expected to be completed within three years and cost $1.6 billion.
Fast forward to today and the facility still has not been finished. The Department of Energy has sunk $4.5 billion into construction alone and estimates for finishing the job range between $25 billion and a staggering $114 billion. Not only is the project more than one-thousand percent over cost and years behind schedule, the MOX facility lacks even a single U.S. utility customer for its commercial reactor fuel.
It is the very definition of a boondoggle.
As former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, and as a conservative, it was my duty to spend taxpayer dollars on projects that move our country forward. I worked to advance defense research and development at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and improve management practices at the Department of Energy.
But when I raised concerns about the MOX facility during hearings a dozen years ago and tried to stop the project, I was met with resistance by the Energy Department, the Bush Administration, and many of my fellow Republicans. They told me canceling the project would hurt then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s chances of being reelected, and would damage our relations with Russia.
Thirteen years later, everything I was afraid of happening is now unfolding. The project was never about good policy - just politics.
My biggest regret from my time in Congress is not finding a way to thwart the project.
Beyond the exorbitant price tag, the MOX facility also suffers from alarming safety and security problems, according to watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
They discovered, for example, that the contractor in charge of the project was granted an exemption from an important security standard before construction of the facility began. Places like MOX must be able to verify the location of all special nuclear materials within 72 hours. The logic is straightforward: if a terrorist claims to have stolen nuclear material from a facility like MOX, it is essential to be able to verify or disprove such a claim as soon as possible.
Instead of 72 hours, the MOX contractor estimates it could take 180 days (!) to physically verify the presence of all nuclear materials—60 times the safety requirement.
It should be acknowledged that the US can continue to uphold its agreement with Russia without the MOX facility. The Department of Energy has identified several alternative strategies to dispose of the plutonium that have been independently verified to be more cost effective, timely, and safer. We also should question the current status of our relationship with Russia, and the progress being made on their side of the plutonium disposal agreement.
Now that my party is in control of both chambers of Congress, we should demonstrate to the American people that we are, in fact, champions of fiscal restraint and willing to cut wasteful spending.
I implore my successors in Congress to put an end to the wasteful MOX facility once and for all.
David Hobson is a former Republican Congressman from Ohio and former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee.