Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project

Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis Bill to protect Mueller blocked in Senate McConnell: Mueller probe should be allowed to finish MORE (R-S.C.) is picking another fight that he promises will be even bigger spectacle than his over-the-top performance during Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughVermont Democrats cancel events with Michael Avenatti his arrest for domestic violence Avenatti arrested over alleged domestic violence: police Washington politics may change, but Donald Trump will stay same MORE’s confirmation hearings. Over what? A pork-barrel nuclear construction project in his state that his new best friend, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Avenatti denies domestic violence allegations: 'I have never struck a woman' Trump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa MORE, is determined to shut down.

Graham, Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottTime to pass the First Step Act Debbie Stabenow reelected to a fourth Senate term in Michigan Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project MORE (R-S.C.), Rep. Joe WilsonAddison (Joe) Graves WilsonRepublicans jockey for top GOP spot on House Foreign Affairs Committee Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project Trump calls North Carolina redistricting ruling ‘unfair’ MORE (R-S.C.), and South Carolina state officials met with Trump at the White House on Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to get the president to change his mind about canceling the project. Hopefully, the president will stick to his guns and allow the Department of Energy (DOE) to finally put an end to this boondoggle.

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The project is costing taxpayers more than $1 million a day. The facility, the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Plant, is three decades behind schedule and projected to cost some $15 billion more than its original $2 billion estimate. To date, the project is only 30 percent complete but has already cost more than $5 billion.

The MOX plant has a long and troubled history. After the end of the Cold War in 1991, both the United States and the former Soviet Union were stuck with dozens of tons of plutonium — a key fuel for nuclear weapons — that were no longer necessary for their shrinking nuclear arsenals. 

The DOE proposed the MOX plant as one method for converting retired U.S. plutonium weapon components into a form that was less readily usable in bombs and more difficult for terrorists to steal. The factory would turn the plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. After the reactors used the MOX fuel, the remaining plutonium would wind up trapped in heavy and highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies.

But the MOX plan would actually increase the risk of nuclear terrorism. The MOX plant is so large and complex that if terrorists posing as plant workers diverted enough plutonium for a bomb, the loss might not be detected for weeks or even longer. Moreover, MOX fuel would have to be shipped to commercial reactors around the country, where security measures are far weaker than at DOE weapons facilities.

MOX soon proved disastrous. Construction of the fuel factory, which began in 2007, has been plagued with prolonged delays and cost overruns. One major recurring problem was the need to redo defective construction. For example, the project contractor, now called CB&I AREVA MOX Services, bought 9,500 tons of steel rebar for reinforced concrete that was discovered to be inferior, but not before MOX Services installed 142 tons of it.

Also, the DOE found in 2014 that “electrical work at the MOX facility was not being completed in accordance specifications and had to be repeatedly removed and reinstalled.” Adding insult to injury, the contractor billed the DOE for the extra labor needed to fix its mistakes, wasting even more taxpayer money. The DOE testified to Congress in 2015 that 25 percent of construction work had to be redone, but because MOX Services did not begin to systematically track and manage rework until 2014, the full extent of the problem may never be known. 

Faced with ballooning costs and uncertain prospects, the Obama administration decided in 2014 to terminate MOX and adopt a simpler, cheaper alternative that would be at much lower risk for nuclear terrorism. Surplus plutonium could be diluted with an inert material, packaged in small quantities, and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the deep geologic repository for military nuclear waste. This policy made so much sense that the Trump administration rebuffed calls by MOX supporters to reverse it when it took office in 2017.

For years, Graham and his South Carolina allies convinced Congress to prohibit the DOE from terminating MOX. Last year, however, Congress finally provided a way out: It decided that the DOE could shut down the MOX program if it could show that the alternative approach could dispose of all the surplus plutonium at less than half the cost of MOX. The DOE met that requirement in May, but in June the state of South Carolina won a federal injunction blocking termination, which was temporarily reversed on appeal last week. The DOE cancelled the project the very next day.

That left Graham with only one card to play: a direct appeal to the president to reverse course. But is Graham’s loyalty worth $12 billion in taxpayer money? Let’s just hope Trump, who considers himself to be a shrewd businessman, really knows a bad deal when he sees one.

Edwin Lyman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program in Washington, D.C.