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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

Vol. 20 No. 6 • Feb 9, 2016

Obama Aims to Terminate MOX Project

Staff Reports
NS&D Monitor

The future of the Savannah River Site's Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) is uncertain again as President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 budget proposal calls for shutting down the facility in lieu of another method of disposing of surplus nuclear weapon-usable plutonium. After more than a year of speculation, the proposal confirms that Obama and the Department of Energy want to ice the MOX method and move forward with a downblending approach. While MOX would convert 34 metric tons of plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel, downblending would dilute the plutonium using inhibitor materials and dispose of the material at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M.

Obama's budget would appropriate $285 million to move forward with downblending but does not specify how much of the money would be used shut down MOX and how much would be used for downblending. That would be down from $340 million provided for construction of the MOX facility in this budget year, which ends on Sept. 30. In the outer years, the proposal puts the MFFF on schedule to completely shut down by 2021. The proposal seeks $221 million each year over a four-year span, or $884 million, to shut down the facility.

The Department of Energy lauded the proposal, stating it allows the agency to complete targeted disposal of the plutonium significantly earlier and cheaper than with MOX. Other opponents of the program were similarly pleased.

"There are options that will cost far less, be completed more quickly, and not create the unnecessary security risks inherent in the MOX-based approach," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

While MOX opponents are celebrating, South Carolina's lawmakers have already denounced the project's potential shutdown. MOX advocates include U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) who supporters may look to first to sustain construction of the Savannah River Site facility. Graham serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as the upper chamber’s Appropriations Committee, which means a final vote to nix MOX would have to pass through him on more than one occasion. On Tuesday, Graham said in a press release that Obama's proposal is "reckless" because it seeks MOX termination "without a proven disposition plan in place." He added that now is not the time to renegotiate with Russia the terms of a 2000 deal in which both countries will dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium. MOX was the designated U.S. means for achieving this goal. "One can only imagine what the Russians will ask for in return," Graham said in the press release.

Following Tuesday's budget rollout, the state of South Carolina reported it has filed a lawsuit against the DOE and others for missing a key deadline at the MFFF and for nonpayment of the associated penalties. The complaint lists four defendants including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and the agency's administrator, Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz.

A 2003 agreement drawn up by Graham, who was in the U.S. House at the time, says the department was to process at least 1 metric ton of plutonium through the MFFF or remove a ton of plutonium from South Carolina by Jan. 1, 2016. Neither occurred, which means the department is supposed to pay South Carolina $1 million a day until one of the actions occurs, according to the 2003 agreement. State Attorney General Alan Wilson warned Moniz in September that legal actions would be taken if DOE failed to meet its obligations. Last month, Gov. Nikki Haley, who has also been advocating for the MOX project, told Wilson to move forward with a lawsuit.

In a Tuesday press release, Wilson said he is seeking what is owed to South Carolina through the 2003 agreement: removal of the MOX-able plutonium from SRS and the $1 million per day owed to the state. "We will continue to work with the Governor’s Office, our federal delegation in Washington and other state officials in a multipronged effort to protect South Carolinians," Wilson said. Getting the Energy Department to pay up will be tough since the agreement states that payment can only occur if the money is available through congressional appropriations. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R–S.C.) said in January that the money could be provided through a line-item shift but that appropriation would still need to be approved by Congress and inked by the president.

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