Before retiring from Congress four years ago, David Hobson, a powerful subcommittee chairman, says he couldn’t fathom why the Energy Department was so determined to build a multibillion dollar plant in South Carolina for transforming plutonium into fuel for US nuclear reactors.
Although the plant was billed as a noble arms control initiative, meant to dispose of the plutonium so it could not be used in weapons again, Hobson was troubled by billions in cost overruns, a lack of demand for the reactor fuel and the existence of cheaper alternatives.
Hobson, now 76, said in an interview that he concluded the project had three real aims: It was a multi-billion dollar jobs program for South Carolina, a Bush White House political gift to then-Gov. Mark Sanford and the state’s mainly Republican congressional delegation, and the potential kickoff of a much more ambitious and costly enterprise meant to benefit the nuclear industry.
None of those justifications appealed to Hobson, a Republican from west of Columbus, Ohio, who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee on energy and water. But they reflected the heavily political impetus for the project, which so far has survived billion-dollar cost overruns, a series of construction snafus, and revisions to its goals that call into question whether the effort will shrink the risks of plutonium’s misuse.
“It should never have been done,” Hobson said about construction of the so-called Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel plant at the Savannah River site. “I tried to kill it, but I was pressured not to.” Officials in the Bush administration, Hobson explained, said the project was vital to Sanford’s reelection that fall. “I was told [that killing] it would hurt his chances of getting elected,” he said.
Former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a fiery promoter of the tea party’s fiscal conservatism, has also quietly supported the MOX project. While touring the site in May 2009, DeMint declared that the “Savannah River Site is at the center of the nuclear renaissance,” according to an Associated Press account.
It’s hardly surprising the MOX project is popular in South Carolina. The region near Savannah River Site is a sea of prosperity in a rural corner of the state. The roughly 11,000 workers at the Site enjoy an average income more than double that of their neighbors who work elsewhere, according to a May 2011 study by the University of South Carolina at Aiken.
An industry-funded group, Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, holds “Up and Atom” breakfasts, sponsors golf tournaments, and each year there is an Atomic City Festival in New Ellenton, a town close to the site entrance.