Charleston — Near the center of the Savannah River Site, the federal government’s sprawling, 300-square-mile nuclear weapons complex tucked away in a corner of South Carolina, sits an unfinished concrete building. When the government first inked a deal in 1999 to build the so-called MOX facility — a one-of-a-kind plant designed to turn bomb-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel — contractors estimated construction would cost $1.7 billion. Fifteen years later, lawmakers have already sunk more than twice that into the project, and will need to spend at least another $4 billion to finish the job. All told, the government now expects it would cost more than $30 billion to build and operate the plant during its 20-year lifespan — despite mounting concerns the project will fail.
So great are the Energy Department’s concerns about the ballooning costs and countless delays that the agency wants to halt construction of the MOX facility — probably permanently. But the state of South Carolina won’t let the federal spigot turn off. Under threat of a lawsuit from Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, the Obama administration backed away from a temporary shutdown at the end of April. Taxpayer-funded construction is continuing full-speed ahead this summer.
Welcome to the world of nuclear-infused pork.
The project is part of an ongoing effort to clean up the radioactive waste of the Cold War. Under a non-proliferation deal brokered with Russia back in 2000, both countries agreed to build MOX plants to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium by blending it with uranium to create a fuel that scientists believe can safely be burned in commercial nuclear power reactors.
After taking a helicopter tour of the site in April, Gov. Nikki Haley told reporters that the ballooning MOX costs are “not our problem” but instead a federal issue. “You’ve made a very real investment. There is structure and everything there. And now they are just going to walk away from it? It really defies all logic,” she said. S.C. Sen. Lindsey Graham, likewise, has repeatedly called the White House plan to return to the drawing board “irresponsible” and “reckless,” words the Republican legislator might normally reserve for over-budget federal projects that are taking place outside of his home state.
“There is still a long, arduous fight ahead,” Graham said in April after the White House temporarily backed down in the face of South Carolina’s threatened lawsuit. He went on to vow that he’d use his perch on the powerful Appropriations Committee to ensure that the Energy Department’s plan to shutter the facility “does not become a reality.” History suggests it won’t.
Read more at Vorhees: South Carolina’s nuclear-infused pork