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President's Budget Halts Overbudget SC Nuclear Program

Department of Energy

An agreement between the United States and Russia calls for disposal of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from each country, enough to produce 17,000 nuclear weapons, according to the Department of Defense. But multi-billion dollar cost overruns at the South Carolina facility built for the disposal has the Obama administration seeking to put the project on hold.

The President’s budget calls for $300 million for the MOX fuel facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. When completed, the building is supposed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors—a swords to plowshares for nuclear warheads. That $300 million might seem like a lot, but it would be used to put the facility into “cold standby”—placing construction indefinitely on hold, while the Department of Energy looks for other ways to dispose of the fuel.

Environmental groups have opposed the project since its start. They say transporting weapons-grade fuel to nuclear reactors creates a proliferation risk. As building continued, the Sierra Club’s nuclear advisor Tom Clements had another criticism.

“There has been so little accountability and proper oversight of the MOX project that it’s really a textbook case on how not to manage one of these big, complex Department of Energy projects,” says Clements.

Several government investigations have found widespread mismanagement. For instance, the Department of Energy approved the project’s cost and schedule before the contractor had finished the design. Since then, the building’s estimated cost has risen from about $5 billion to more than $8 billion.

One highlight from a government report: each foot of piping cost 26 percent more than initially projected, and the latest estimates building included a third more piping than originally called for—85 miles altogether.

The project is not dead, though. Congress still has to approve the proposal to shut down the MOX fuel facility. In previous years, South Carolina lawmakers have successfully pushed through more funding. Clements estimates the U.S. has already spent $5 billion on the project.