The Obama Administration's new budget advocates only enough funding for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility near Aiken, South Carolina, to allow the multi-billion dollar project quietly die, according to a New York Times report.
Spending has reached $4.5 billion and the construction project is only half done. To complete the fuel processing plant that is the direct result of a non-proliferation treaty with Russia, the government will have to spend and additional $9.4 billion to $21 billion, according to various estimates. Then, adding in operational costs, the so-called MOX project could run as high as $30 billion in additional spending.
The various cost analysis, says the Times, is a major bone of contention. High estimates feed into the administration's plans to drop the project altogether. Plan B would then be to forget processing the plutonium – 34 metric tons worth taken from the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal – and store it deep underground in salt formations near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The pricetag for that would be about $350 million per year, compared to up to $1 billion per year for processing the plutonium in South Carolina.
The arguments for keeping the MOX project going pivots on jobs, says the Times. About 1,700 high paying construction jobs depend on the fate of the project, the contract for which is held by Chicago Iron & Bridge.
The wind-down funding in the new budget is not the end of the road for the MOX project. The administration would have to re-negotiate the treaty with Russia. If that happens, the storage facility in New Mexico would need to be fixed and approved despite local opposition. There is also political opposition to dropping the MOX program in Washington, including opposition from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who sits on two key committees in the Senate – the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees – and from influential congressmen Joe Wilson and James Clyburn, a Republican and a Democrat, both from South Carolina.
Opponents, however, point to the long delays and the exorbitant costs. “There have been several independent analyses that have concluded that the MOX fuel approach for plutonium disposition will be significantly more expensive and take longer than anticipated. The analyses also all confirm that there is an alternative approach that would be less than half the cost of the MOX fuel approach,” the Times quoted Department of Energy official John MacWilliams as saying.
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