WASHINGTON — Time may finally be running out on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a multibillion-dollar, over-budget federal project that has been hard to kill.
The Energy Department has already spent about $4.5 billion on the half-built plant near Aiken, S.C., designed to make commercial reactor fuel out of plutonium from nuclear bombs. New estimates place the ultimate cost of the facility at between $9.4 billion and $21 billion, and the outlay for the overall program, including related costs, could go as high as $30 billion.
Officials warn that the delays in the so-called MOX program are so bad that the plant may not be ready to turn the first warhead into fuel until 2040.
So in the budget that the Obama administration will present on Tuesday, the Energy Department proposes abandoning it. Energy officials want to spend only the money necessary to wind down the MOX program while the government shifts to a different method of disposing of the plutonium.
But what is a white elephant to the administration is a source of 1,700 construction jobs to state officials and members of the South Carolina congressional delegation, who have vowed to stop the move. “Here we are, halfway through this damn thing being built, and they say, ‘We don’t want to do this now,’ ” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, speaking for those officials.
The struggle is a case study in the difficulty of cutting unnecessary or wasteful federal programs, with the added twist that proponents of keeping the plant include some of the Republican Party’s most determined opponents of government spending, like Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican whose district includes Aiken.
“The administration must complete construction of MOX — the only viable method at this time of disposing of the plutonium,” Mr. Wilson said in a statement.