COLUMBIA — It’s a familiar story in South Carolina: Nuclear contractors fail to produce a reliable schedule, start construction with just a fraction of design finished, and let pipes and other material corrode in storage under the watch of government agencies.
The abandonment of two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station generated headlines and riled state lawmakers since last summer, but 90 miles south, a similar scenario played out at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
The federal government has likely squandered more than $7 billion as they watched a project fall decades behind schedule and its final cost increase by 12 times the initial estimates. And, like V.C. Summer, the plug is being pulled. The parallels don’t end there: The debacles also shared two of the same contractors.
For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Energy and its private contractors have tried to build the plant to turn Cold War-era nuclear weapons into fuel that could be used in nuclear power plants. It’s known as MOX, short for mixed oxide fuel fabrication.
The idea for the MOX facility was hatched in the mid-1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The United States became increasingly worried that stockpiles of plutonium would fall into the wrong hands. Less than nine pounds can make a nuclear bomb, and tons of the radioactive material from dismantled warheads in Russia and the United States needed to be secured.
“There was a lot of interest in coming up with a way to transform those stockpiles so they couldn’t be as easily used by terrorists,” said Edwin Lyman, an official with the Union for Concerned Scientists who has studied the issues surrounding the MOX program and supports shuttering the project.
After years of debate, the two countries signed an agreement in 2000 in which they each agreed to deal with 34 metric tons of plutonium by processing most of it into fuel for commercial reactors — a 21st century attempt at transforming swords to plowshares.
The U.S. Department of Energy released a report in 2002 that estimated the price of building the new MOX facility near Aiken would cost around $1.4 billion in today’s money. The project offered the prospect of hundreds of new jobs at the Savannah River Site, building upon its long nuclear history that stretches back to the 1950s.
Construction officially began five years later in 2007. The facility planned to blend the plutonium with depleted uranium. That mixture would then be formed into fuel rods for power plants. MOX has been used as fuel in Europe for decades. But there are no nuclear reactors in the United States currently using the mixture.
Disposing of the problem
The new destination for the 34 metric tons of plutonium could be a catacomb of concrete-lined chambers nearly half a mile under the southeast corner of New Mexico.
But that doesn’t mean that South Carolina won’t play a role in disposing of the material.
As it stands, the Department of Energy is now considering a strategy known as “dilute and dispose.” It calls for more than 26 metric tons of plutonium currently warehoused in the Texas panhandle and another 7.8 metric tons already in South Carolina to be turned into a powder, mixed with an undisclosed material and stored away.
The Savannah River Site will serve as the midway point in the process. It’s where the plutonium will be blended before its shipped by rail to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad, N.M.
South Carolina’s Republican leaders disagree. They want MOX completed. They’ve questioned if the facility in New Mexico can store all of the plutonium and if state officials there will accept the new shipments. Even more, they’ve complained about the loss of jobs and the economic impact that’d be felt in the surrounding counties if construction is halted.
The Department of Energy tried to allay those fears by opening up the prospect of manufacturing new nuclear weapons at Savannah River in the future. But that hasn’t satisfied the politicians.
“The DOE’s recent attempts to pacify South Carolina by dangling a possible recommendation to manufacture plutonium pits at the Savannah River Site solves no current problem,” McMaster wrote in a letter to Secretary Perry.