Obama left nuclear waste in South Carolina, Trump can clean it up
© Getty

The Trump administration’s proposed budget contains a provision that threatens thousands of U.S. workers and a very successful nuclear anti-proliferation treaty.

Last month, the Trump administration proposed the termination of a program designed to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands. The effort to close the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, which converts plutonium from nuclear weapons into fuel for power generation, began under the Obama administration as a concession to nuclear-power opponents with the claim that closing the facility would save money. This claim ignored the fact that the facility is 70 percent complete and the fact that the Obama administration had no credible alternative means to dispose of aging nuclear warheads.

ADVERTISEMENT
A Republican Congress stopped Obama from closing the fuel facility, but a new Republican Congress must continue the fight.

 

For over a decade, the U.S. has worked to convince Russia to safely dispose of its vast supply of aging plutonium warheads. The fruit of that labor was the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000. This bilateral agreement committed both countries to disposing of a total of 68 metric tons of plutonium — enough for about 17,000 warheads, or about 10 times the number of warheads each side has deployed today. Thus, we agreed to build the fuel facility to convert the weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for use in commercial nuclear power plants. The Russians agreed to dispose of their plutonium in a similar manner. The deal also makes it far less likely that a terrorist or rogue nation can obtain a nuclear warhead. 

Rightly hailed as a major success, the U.S. and Russia both agreed to update and recommit to the agreement in 2011 as construction proceeded apace at the facility in South Carolina.

Obama administration officials at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration testified that the agency must “continue to lead international efforts to limit and reduce nuclear arsenals, prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and secure nuclear materials across the globe.” 

Congress directed the agency to continue constructing the facility. The agency, led by Obama appointees however, performed poorly, delaying the project and running up costs.

The Obama administration then broke faith with Congress when it began promoting so-called alternatives and in 2014 attempted to eliminate funding for the fuel facility. The entire South Carolina delegation pushed back in a 2014 letter that declared, “This decision jeopardizes our national security, directly attempts to usurp Congress’ power of the purse, and will cost American taxpayers millions of dollars without a return on investment.”

Last year, nonetheless, the Obama administration called for the termination of the nuclear fuel project. Once again, our South Carolina delegation — along with then Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson — fought hard to keep the project on track, and they succeeded. 

The nuclear fuel project remains the only viable plan for disposing of weapons-grade plutonium. I agree with Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.) who recently criticized President Obama’s alternative proposal of “dilute and dispose” for surplus weapons-grade plutonium. He said that, “there are several shortcomings with this approach. First, it has already been considered. Second, it was rejected.”

The Obama effort to terminate the nuclear fuel program also violates our international non-proliferation agreements and ignores the established law on storing the nuclear material. Changing law and regulation on such storage itself would take years and cost untold amounts of taxpayer dollars.

Rep. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonSacha Baron Cohen mulls arming toddlers with guns in inaugural episode Why civility in politics won't be getting any better Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks MORE (R-S.C.) also recently noted that terminating the program “puts South Carolina and Georgia at risk of being a permanent dump for nuclear waste. The South Carolina project is the only facility in the nation that, when completed, would be able to convert weapons-grade plutonium into green fuel.”

Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs Congress should prioritize diversity so government reflects Americans MORE (R S.C.) has added that, “The opposition to [the project] is, in my opinion, nonsense. There is no other way to dispose of this weapons-grade plutonium other than the [fuel] facility,”

I agree with my colleagues from South Carolina that the fuel program remains the only viable means of disposing of weapons-grade nuclear material. I also agree with them that the time and cost of any attempted change of horses would be unacceptable to South Carolina and our nation as we deal with this issue.

The federal government asked South Carolina to step up and do its part to solve this problem, and South Carolina has done that. The federal government must hold up its end of the bargain. 

Kevin Bryant is the lieutenant governor of South Carolina. Bryant previously served in the South Carolina Senate and as Anderson County Republican Party chairman. Follow him on Twitter @kevinbryantsc.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.