1700 Construction Jobs on the Tipping Point

February 9, 2016

In 2000 the Bush administration and Russia agreed to repurpose their country's surplus weapon-grade plutonium - about  34 metric tons total - and make fuel pellets used in commercial nuclear power reactors out of the warheads.

The Energy Department has already spent about $4.5 billion on the half-built plant near Aiken, South Carolina and new estimates place the ultimate cost of the facility at between $9.4 billion and $21 billion. Total outlay for the overall program, including related costs, could go as high as $30 billion.

However, officials warn that delays in the program are so bad the plant may not be ready to turn the first warhead into fuel until 2040.

The site has become a political hot potato as the government struggles to cut wasteful federal programs while local politicians try to keep jobs in their districts. To say nothing about living up to that pesky agreement with Russia.

In the budget that the Obama administration will present on today, the Energy Department proposes abandoning it. Energy officials want to spend only the money necessary to wind down the MOX program while the government shifts to a different method of disposing of the plutonium. Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican whose district includes Aiken and an outspoken opponent of government spending finds himself saying, "The administration must complete construction of MOX — the only viable method at this time of disposing of the plutonium,” in support of the jobs in his locale.

“Here we are, halfway through this damn thing being built, and they say, ‘We don’t want to do this now," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

The Energy Department would like to move that nuclear waste to a facility near Carlsbad, N.M., where it would be stored deep underground in salt formations. But the New Mexico underground storage facility, which has been closed for two years because of a 2014 leak of radioactive material must obtain legal and regulatory approvals to store the plutonium waste at that facility before it can reopen. New Mexico’s political leaders are not yet convinced they want to participate in the plan.

And then there is the lawsuit filed by Alan Wilson, South Carolina’s attorney general to sue the Energy Department over MOX. Grounds for the lawsuit are expected to be based on the fact that the Energy Department missed a January 1 deadline for the removal of some of the plutonium out of the state, and the suit is expected to claim that the department owes fines to South Carolina.

 “If you tell me that MOX won’t work after all this, then why should I believe you when you say the other thing will work?” Mr. Graham said. “How can the government miss this so badly? Somebody should be fired over this.”

Meantime, 1700 workers wonder about their jobs. For more, read James Risen's article here.

Source: New York Times; Reuters; MOX