A “Sensitive But Unclassified” document from the Secretary of Energy, obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, indicates that the Department is concerned that parochial interests in Congress may thwart their plans to kill the MOX program.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) is the result of a bilateral agreement with Russia in which both countries agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of nuclear weapons grade plutonium. In 2002 the U.S. decided to construct the MOX facility to convert this dangerous material into fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. But now, 14 years later, the MOX program is almost 3,000 percent over budget, lacks even a single potential customer for the fuel, and could actually be putting our nuclear material at risk.
The November 2015 memorandum from Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz to President Obama states that MOX is a "high-priority 'hot potato' issue" for this Congress and indicates that the Department is finally beginning to shift focus and funding away from MOX and toward a plutonium disposition process that will actually work: “We are working with our appropriators and other stakeholders to shift our plutonium disposition strategy from MOX power reactor fuel to dilution and underground disposal. This is much faster and cheaper.”
Last year, an independent study performed by the Aerospace Corporation confirmed that the cost of finishing construction of MOX and operating the plant for the next 20 years will be at least $47.5 billion and could be as much as $114 billion depending on annual funding from Congress. That would be in addition to the $5 billion already spent on the project. MOX was originally expected to cost a mere $1.6 billion.
Despite the project’s long history of skyrocketing costs, safety and security concerns, and construction problems, it has been kept alive in large part by political officials who have an interest in making sure funding for the project continues.
Problems with the MOX program were first raised in the early 2000s by then-Representative David Hobsen (R-OH), who was serving as Chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee at the time. His efforts to halt construction of the MOX facility were stalled in 2006 due to pressure from the Department of Energy, the Administration, and his own party. He was told that canceling the project would hurt then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s chances of being reelected.
In 2013, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) placed a hold on the president’s nomination for Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz until Moniz promised to finish the MOX plant. Graham eventually relented and removed the hold but remains one of the most outspoken supporters for the project along with Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Representative Rick Allen (R-GA).
Representatives Wilson and Allen recently denounced the dilution and underground disposal method, which would involve mixing the weapons grade plutonium with other materials before sending it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground repository in New Mexico. The Aerospace Corporation found that this method would cost $17 billion over its lifetime as opposed to the $47.5 billion needed to complete the MOX project.
The Center for Public Integrity has previously detailed the long history of lobbying and campaign donations to the South Carolina members by large companies with a financial interest in the MOX project. Many of these same officials bill themselves as budget hawks, committed to limited federal spending while, at the same time, supporting this multi-billion dollar boondoggle.
Secretary Moniz’s November memo to the president references this difficult history. “While Senate appropriators agree with us, the House appropriators are concerned about alienating the South Carolina delegation.”
One of the concerns raised by Representative Wilson and others is that moving away from the MOX strategy will require re-opening negotiations with Russia, something Wilson told the Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor (behind a paywall) “the U.S. should avoid.” Although the Energy Department acknowledges that US-Russia relations are “complicated,” Moniz’s memo confirms that the Energy Department’s Russian partners “are amenable to discussion.”
POGO is pleased to see the Energy Department formally move away from the MOX program and begin working toward a cheaper, faster, and less risky strategy for disposing this dangerous material.