In the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by the House of Representatives yesterday and the Senate today, Congress is taking an encouraging step toward terminating the wasteful and dangerous Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant, under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX plant, if completed, would be used to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program by turning it into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the project is decades behind schedule and is now expected to cost upwards of $50 billion—ten times the original estimate.
The provision in the bill represents a significant political shift, although reports that MOX is dead are somewhat premature. Assuming the bill becomes law, the next—and hopefully final—step is when the Department of Energy (DOE) submits to Congress a life-cycle cost estimate demonstrating that an alternative approach for disposing of the excess plutonium could be accomplished for less than half of the remaining MOX project cost. The DOE’s alternative approach, “dilute and dispose,” a straightforward and well-established process, should be able to satisfy this criterion. The end of MOX is in sight.
The program that wouldn’t die
Since 2014, the DOE has been trying to end the MOX program. However, the project, which has provided a steady stream of federal funds to South Carolina for over a decade, is steadfastly protected by certain members of Congress, including Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and like-minded colleagues.
For several years, a stalemate ensued, with Congress compelling the DOE to continue building a facility it no longer wanted, but without providing enough funding to effectively advance the project. Meanwhile, problems at the MOX plant, including faulty construction that requires costly and time-consuming “rework” to fix, keep piling up. Things have gotten so slow at the site that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently revealed that it was no longer stationing a full-time inspector at the MOX plant because there wasn’t enough work to justify it.
A way forward
Congress’ resolve to keep the MOX program going started to crack with the passage of the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA contained a waiver provision that would allow the DOE to terminate the MOX plant project if it could meet certain conditions, of which the most challenging was the life-cycle cost certification. The NDAA further stipulated that the cost figures would have to meet Government Accountability Office (GAO) guidelines for such estimates—standards that the DOE has had difficulty meeting in the past. The DOE now says that it will complete its estimate for the dilute and dispose option in FY 2019, although some Hill staff believe it could be as soon as this summer.
Until the omnibus bill was released, the appropriators in the House did not appear to be on the same page as the defense authorizers and their Senate counterparts. In particular, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID sought to impose even more stringent criteria on the DOE before agreeing to terminate MOX, although it is not clear he had the authority to do so. But in any event, the omnibus language explicitly accepts the NDAA waiver provisions and would allow the DOE to fund shutdown of the MOX project 30 days after submitting the requisite cost estimates to Congress. To the extent this demonstrates that Rep. Simpson has accepted the sufficiency of the NDAA waiver requirements, he should be commended.
The DOE needs to finish the job
Now the ball is in the DOE’s court to complete its life cycle cost analyses for both dilute-and-dispose and the remainder of the MOX program as accurately, comprehensively, and quickly as it can. Although there is good reason to believe that dilute-and-dispose would be well below half the ballooning cost of MOX, the DOE needs to document that conclusion in an iron-clad fashion to protect its analysis from the MOX supporters in Congress who may seek to undermine it.