Sen. Graham, ditch South Carolina's failed nuclear waste project

Sen. Graham, ditch South Carolina's failed nuclear waste project
© Greg Nash

As Halloween approaches, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCNN to air sexual harassment Town Hall featuring Gretchen Carlson, Anita Hill Trump wrestles with handling American enemy combatants Flake: Trump's call for DOJ to probe Democrats 'not normal' MORE (R-S.C.) appears to be running for the title of Senate chief necromancer. Last month, he failed to resurrect a zombie Obamacare repeal bill. But he is successfully keeping alive a zombie earmark for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) in South Carolina, despite attempts to cancel the project by both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The facility has been under construction for more than a decade in Graham’s home state but is only 30 percent complete. It’s time for enraged taxpayers to grab their torches and banish Graham’s MOX monster for good.

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The MOX plant is being built to convert approximately 50 metric tons of surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons to mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in nuclear reactors. Included in that quantity is 34 metric tons that the United States committed to dispose of on a bilateral basis with Russia in a 2000 agreement.

 

By any measure, MOX is a disaster. Decades behind schedule and billions over budget, it keeps falling farther behind. In 2002, the Energy Department claimed that MOX would cost a total of $5.5 billion (in 2017 dollars) and would be done by 2019. But the Energy Department now estimates it will cost $56 billion — 10 times higher — and will take until 2065.

And for what? A major rationale was to get Russia to agree to dispose of some of its excess weapons plutonium. But Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a year ago that he was suspending Russia’s implementation of the agreement unless the U.S. gave in to unrealistic and unrelated demands, such as ending sanctions related to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

Now that President Trump has decided to follow the Obama administration and is seeking to cancel MOX, it is clear this is not a partisan issue but a choice between responsible, effective government policy and wasteful, pork-barrel spending.

Nonetheless, the MOX zombie just keeps shuffling along. Last month, the Senate defied the administration’s position and passed a defense authorization bill that gave the green light to continued MOX funding. The House of Representatives’ companion bill would do likewise, also under the sway of South Carolina members. However, both bills do allow for MOX termination if certain conditions, likely attainable, are met. 

Only the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee, under the leadership of Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderObamaCare becomes political weapon for Democrats Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training Sen. Warren sold out the DNC MORE (R-Tenn.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenators push mandatory sexual harassment training for members, staff Bipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program Senate panel to hold hearing on bump stocks MORE (D-Calif.) had the temerity to defy Graham and propose cancelling the program outright. While it is not clear that bill will ever come to the floor, Graham has said that if it does he intends to push through an amendment to restore MOX funding.

To be fair, the self-interest of South Carolina politicians is not the only thing keeping MOX alive. Other members of Congress, such as House energy and water appropriations chair Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), are reluctant to terminate the program without ensuring that the Energy Department’s preferred alternative for disposing of the plutonium, called “dilute and dispose,” is viable.

Dilute and dispose entails blending plutonium with non-radioactive materials to a low concentration, and then disposing of the mixture as waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. While dilute and dispose could prove far cheaper and faster to implement than MOX, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) rightly points out that the Energy Department has not devoted sufficient attention to addressing unresolved issues.

For example, there is a legal limit on the capacity of the WIPP repository. And not all that capacity can be used. Parts of WIPP were rendered unusable after a February 2014 explosion of a disposal drum containing a volatile mix of nuclear waste and carbon-based kitty litter.

Not to worry: The Energy Department won’t make that mistake again.

However, none of these issues are show-stoppers, provided that the Energy Department develops a comprehensive long-term plan for dilute and dispose and works proactively with the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of New Mexico, the affected public and other stakeholders. 

Congress itself is partly to blame for the Energy Department’s slow pace in resolving the outstanding issues with dilute and dispose. It provided only a measly $5 million in fiscal year 2016 for studying the approach — less than 2 percent of the MOX appropriation — and would only give $15 million in fiscal 2017. A larger investment in dilute and dispose now will likely yield major taxpayer savings in the future.

Sen.Graham, it’s time to put the zombies to rest and give live solutions a chance to thrive.

Edwin Lyman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. The author has no financial interests or lobbying relations regarding the subjects raised.