Slate's Incomplete Story of the SRS MOX Facility and How an Article Becomes an Editorial

Sketch for a seaside nuclear power plant in Wales. I didn't have time to draw the MOX facility for this article, alas, so this will have to do, though as everyone reading probably realizes it's a very different creature altogether. 

Slate, a very-popular and well-regarded daily news site ran an article today by journalist Josh Voorhees regarding the DOE MOX facility under construction at the Savannah River Site with an emphasis on the cost-overruns and delays associated with this project. This may be the first a national and international general lay readership has heard of the MOX facility, really, beyond those who live in South Carolina or Georgia. Alas, Voorhees wrote what is in essence an editorial and showcases not the overall story of the facility but how the author views it as a "pork barrel" project with little real merit but lots of South Carolinian political support. In other words, Voorhees seems to think he found the perfect poster-child for pet political projects without enough unbiased or scientific merit to keep them afloat but plenty of local emphasis by elected officials seeking them as job-creators or generators of tax revenue. I expect if Voorhees had been able to locate an Air Force project in Nevada or a USDA research boondoggle in Montana or Maine, he'd have jumped on that just as fast: this article, mind you, isn't really about the MOX facility or even South Carolina. It's all about the type of local favoritism at all costs that many, if not most, state politicians expectedly play. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was perhaps the king of this and brought all manner of federal money and support back home to the Mountain State for decades. So, a couple immediate thoughts on that aspect of the article—seeing as it was the one the author really seemed to want to push:

—State-level elected officials are elected to serve their state, obviously. Expect them to argue for anything to create jobs or bring money into their states. If they're not doing so and if they don't put up a fight to garner things like billion-dollar federal projects that could go elsewhere, they're not really doing the jobs to which they were elected. So I really have no problem if politicians are doing such as long as they're within the bounds of the law and ethics. 

—South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whom I admire in general, rightfully is concerned and proactive to keep a project going that is over-budget and delayed: those problems were not her doing nor the doing of her state's agencies but of contractors and DOE. She was promised a MOX plant and she's smart to hold the Obama Administration to the coals to get it. (Which is, with a lawsuit, essentially what she's had to resort to in order to keep the MOX plant moving along.)

—As Gov. Haley herself noted (and is quoted in the Voorhees article) "You’ve made a very real investment. There is structure and everything there. And now they are just going to walk away from it? It really defies all logic."

Indeed, it is a real investment—a grand investment—and yes, it's far over-budget. And it's still not even ready. Those are issues, to be sure, but it's not something left waiting on the drafting table, either, but a very tangible project already under construction. Even if it did go ahead to construction when it ought to have had some extant problems fixed first, it's underway now. To abandon even a problematic project with this great an investment sees foolish. 

So there you go with the political stuff: nothing new under the sun here, just state politicians defending their state's interests. Why is the MOX plant opposed in Washington, where it was of course first commissioned in the first place? Mainly because it's costing far more than ever expected, it's been horribly delayed, and there is a question of whether it will have a service life long enough to merit the money it's costing now. Voorhees, like many non-industry journalists, marshals a fair amount of DOE reports, audits, and other material to support his thesis that yes, this project has been found faulty by the very people who ordered it in the first place. However, also like many in his profession, he stops right there and offers very, very, little technical explicatus of the reports' findings and why the MOX plant would or would not wind up earning its keep. He explains in vague terms what mixed oxide fuel is and why the concept of warheads to power reactors of course made sense but holds some problems and challenges to overcome. He also considers the situation of the National Nuclear Security Administration's goals of reducing Russian nuclear arsenal holdings and how the MOX plant at SRS could factor into that and how right now that part of the plan may not have very much to offer. I've linked the article below and do encourage everyone to read it, in all fairness, and see what they think for themselves of Voorhees' approach. However, he simply doesn't explain enough about mixed oxide fuels or thermal and fast reactors or plans for using MOX in CANDU reactors or really any of the benefits of MOX and the facility beyond the immediate national security agenda of reducing warhead materials. So really, while Voorhees admits he has to explain to a lay readership in a general news publication what MOX is and what the NNSA is, he then fails to really explain much on even a basic technical level about the overall MOX vision at the time of the plant's planning, the additional benefits for such a facility, or—and this is most-crucial—why there have been such awful cost-overruns. Was it because they went with the wrong contractors? Was it too many chiefs, not enough Indians? Or was it because the MOX plant is a first-of-type and a highly-technical, highly-secure facility that has a lot of complex details to work out? Pretty much all of the above can be claimed, but Voorhees owed us more than to link to a DOE audit and leave things at that. 

This is in good part perhaps beyond the author's own control: I've written an article for Slate before and while I admire them in general, they are increasingly trying to make most articles of such a length and nature that they can be read in a few minutes—many even have the time in minutes the article will require from its reader noted beside its title on the main Slate homepage. Five minutes for this article, two minutes for that one. Just two minutes! So short, so easy! Ok, so it won't waste your time, but is this good science/tech reporting? Is it?

To add to this, Voorhees tells his reader he requested a tour of the SRS MOX facility under construction but the NNSA refused his request and also declined a request for an interview. The article's dateline, oddly, is "Charleston, South Carolina" which is nowhere near the Savannah River Site. Augusta, Georgia is the nearest large city and Aiken, South Carolina the closest city of any size. Yet Voorhees, so very oddly, is in  . . . Charleston. Columbia is the capital of South Carolina, so even that would make sense, but Charleston? Really? They have great seafood but otherwise I fail to see why he's reporting on the SRS from Charleston. Maybe after being declined an interview Voorhees thought to be extra-safe he'd retreat to Charleston and not further trouble the NNSA or hey, maybe it was the seafood calling his name. Who knows. What I do know is, this is a very strange article indeed. It's obvious the author put some serious time into it, yet in the end all he really has is an editorial on how pork-barrel politics are still alive and well and how South Carolina's political leadership isn't keen on seeing a multi-billion-dollar federal project within their state fall by the wayside. Sad, because this would have been a great opportunity to educate the public on all the good, bad, and ugly about this project and the promise of mixed oxide fuels in general. But we didn't get that, really. And it's a shame, because when Slate runs a story like this, chances are they won't run another nor are we likely to see anything of much substance elsewhere in the news about MOX anytime soon. Which brings us to something I've long advocated: if you're in the nuclear industry and have a chance to write stuff yourself (as I am here), do it. If you have the chance to be interviewed, try to get the best message forward because you may lack that chance again—as may your peers—for quite some time. All aspects of nuclear face a steep hill to climb with public relations insofar as we work with very complex technologies that require some time to explain while we also face countering the long-standing myths and Hollywood fictions of our industry. Moreover, we are in a field that yes, is often very expensive. So a journalist can easily draw upon tropes of big, scary, war-minded, dangerous, expensive nuclear this or that without even half trying . . . but if he doesn't try to provide a fair and balanced view and also explain some of the technical backstory, he leaves his reader with only one more basic news story to further their existing misconceptions of nuclear. 

Though I doubt I'll have time tonight I plan to write something for this blog that is comprehensive on the SRS MOX facility and MOX in general—something able to explain to the lay reader the full picture of such a facility and why this specific project encountered so many problems and delays. That's the story that needs to be told, not that South Carolina is fighting to keep a project promised to bring it jobs. That's kind of a non-story, really, if you've been around politics for longer than a week. 

Voorhees' article: