A senior Energy Department official, in a burst of candor this week, said that the hundreds of millions of dollars Congress plans to spend next year on a controversial project meant to get rid of Cold War-era nuclear explosive materials would be wasted.
The Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina – also known as MOX – is meant to convert excess plutonium from retired military weapons into fuel for civilian reactors. It has cost nearly $5 billion to date – well over initial estimates, and will miss its projected 2018 opening date by many years, if it is actually completed.
Officials in Washington are debating its future, largely due to sticker shock at recent official estimates that the total cost could reach nearly $50 billion. But if Congress in coming weeks – as expected — approves a spending bill that keeps existing government projects going through the end of this year, the MOX project will keep eating up funds at its current annual rate of $345 million.
The troubled project was designed to fulfill a diplomatic promise to Russia to eliminate 34 metric tons of weapon- grade plutonium. But some lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 7, of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces expressed new regrets.
“The subject of this hearing is a horror story for the American taxpayer,” Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said.
MOX has been plagued by contractor management failures, delays, and performance problems that required work to be redone. But South Carolina’s influential congressional delegation has repeatedly beat back efforts to pursue a cheaper alternative.
Recent studies ordered by the Energy Department determined MOX, over the lifespan of its mission, might need $1 billion annually, funds the department does not have. Diluting the plutonium and burying it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico – known as WIPP – could cut that cost by half or more. That path is tangled, however, because the repository has not been accepting waste since February 2014, due to a series of accidents there.
Cooper pointed to the Energy Department’s studies that said dilution and burial of the surplus plutonium would be “better and cheaper” than continuing to spend money on MOX. “But Congress being Congress,” he said, “there is a lot of inertia and there are some folks who may prefer what is now the worse and more expensive and slower option, which is the one we’ve been fooling with all these years.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, an outspoken critic of MOX who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and joined other lawmakers at the Oct. 7 hearing, noted the swelling cost estimates for the project, and said it’s time for Congress to decide whether further spending on MOX holds any value.
“Appropriating $345 million a year: What does that buy?” Fortenberry asked John MacWilliams, an associate deputy secretary of the Energy Department who has spent the past few years analyzing the department’s cost overrun problems, particularly on large construction projects.
“Nothing,” MacWilliams said.
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