Question: What happens when a senator is determined to keep the money flowing into his state for a budget-busting boondoggle that’s wasting billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money?
Answer: You end up with a monstrosity like South Carolina’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) - a building that was supposed to cost $1.6 billion and take five years to construct. More than a dozen years later, it’s still not ready, and won’t ever be, and the Energy Department has already poured $5 billion into construction. Independent estimates found it may require a preposterous $110 billion to complete the whole MOX project. The latest estimated date of completion is 2048 - about eight presidential election cycles from now.
Now the last potential justification for continuing to fund the MOX project is gone. This week Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would be withdrawing from a bilateral agreement signed in 2000 in which both Russia and the U.S. agreed to dispose of excess weapons grade plutonium. MOX was designed to turn that plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors but in addition to being preposterously over budget, the technology is questionable at best and lacks even a single potential customer.
Putin cited “hostile actions” by the U.S. as the reason for withdrawing;from the plutonium agreement. Although it’s never a victory to see a breakdown in diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S., this new turn of events removes the latest reason for continuing to fund the MOX project.
The MOX project is opposed by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the National Taxpayer Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Project On Government Oversight, and the Department of Energy, the very agency managing the project, but continues to be funded for one reason: parochial pork politics.
It starts with U.S. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' Bipartisan senators earmark billion to support democracies globally Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (R-S.C.), but he has company in the ongoing quest to keep the MOX fiasco alive. Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottHow expanded credit data can help tackle inequities Dems erupt over GOP 'McCarthyism' as senators vet Biden bank watchdog pick Why Democrats' prescription drug pricing provision would have hurt seniors MORE (R-S.C.) and U.S. Reps. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain Pandora Papers prompt lawmakers to push for crackdown on financial 'enablers' MORE (R-S.C.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Rick Allen (R-Ga.) are also doing their best to put politics above good policy.
This isn’t the first time the plutonium deal has gotten caught in the crosshairs of geopolitical posturing. Previously, Putin used the lack of progress by the U.S. on the MOX project as an excuse for not attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. At the time, Putin claimed he wouldn’t show because of the administration’s opposition to the MOX facility.
Rather than acknowledge the project has failed, the South Carolina delegation has tried to connect the issue to debates about the president's foreign policy. Sens. Graham and Scott sent a letter to President Obama claiming that President Obama’s efforts to stop the MOX project “have unnecessarily harmed our nation’s long-time leadership role when it comes to nuclear nonproliferation.” Essentially, Graham and Scott were legitimizing Putin’s reason for not attending an important diplomatic event.
Graham should know better. As one of the most well-versed lawmakers in Congress when it comes to foreign policy, he has been an outspoken critic of Putin’s aggressive crackdown on democratic activities inside Russia and the Kremlin’s violent assertion of regional power.
The truth is, Russia’s objections to U.S. plans to scrap MOX for better alternatives are “bad science,” according to two nuclear experts, Dr. Edwin Lyman and Dr. Frank Von Hippel. They’ve identified a method to dilute and dispose the plutonium that would be simpler, cheaper and faster while still addressing Russia’s stated concerns with the method and fulfilling America’s obligations under the treaty with Russia.
Nor does Graham’s newfound sensitivity to international treaties pass the laugh test. In 2012, he voted against a United Nations treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities, siding with opponents who thought the treaty would “infringe on U.S. sovereignty.”
President Putin’s latest move to withdraw Russia from the agreement removes Graham’s last potentially legitimate reason for continuing to fund the MOX facility. The U.S. can still demonstrate an international commitment to nuclear non-proliferation by disposing of the plutonium in one of the cheaper and faster methods identified by the Energy Department. It’s time for Graham and other MOX supporters to stop pretending this is real policy making and demonstrate to the American people that they can, in fact, be champions of fiscal restraint and cut blatant wasteful spending.
Lydia Dennet is an Investigator with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) where she investigates the safety and security of nuclear weapons and power facilities, works with federal whistleblowers, and develops POGO's Foreign Influence Database.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.