House members protest putting MOX project in ‘cold standby’

Twenty-one members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed onto a letter urging the Obama administration to reconsider its plan for “substantially reduced funding” for the mixed oxide fuel (MOX) fabrication facility now under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Likewise, the lawmakers also oppose the Obama administration’s intention to place the project into “cold standby.” The March 31 letter was addressed to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and signed by Republicans, such as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) as well as at least one senior Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

“We have serious concerns regarding the President’s budget proposal decision on several grounds,” the congressmen said in the Department of Energy (DOE) letter.

The House members suggested the project is so far along now that putting it on the backburner could actually cost the federal government money and potential hurt United States compliance with an international treaty with Russia.

“As you are aware, this facility was chosen by the Clinton Administration and authorized by Congress as our nation’s means to dispose of excess weapons grade plutonium as we convert the material into commercial grade fuel,” the lawmakers said. “The disposal of this material is mandated by the US-Russia Plutonium Disposition Agreement.

“Placing this program into cold-standby will prevent the United States from honoring its part of the aforementioned agreement.” The lawmakers go on to say that not going ahead with the MOX plant will send a “conflicting message to the international community” at a time when the United States is seeking to negotiate a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran.

“Additionally, halting progress on MOX will allow Russia to discontinue efforts toward disposing of their material,” and have international security implications, the lawmakers said.

Congress has also previously authorized money for the construction of the MOX plant, but not for putting the project in cold standby. “We are concerned that the intent of Congress is being ignored and as a result we may see a usurpation of Congress’ power of the purse.”

The lawmakers also question how the DOE arrived at a $30bn “lifecycle” cost for the MOX facility. The lawmakers also said that placing the MOX project in cold standby will cost between $700m and $900m.

The MOX facility would convert surplus weapons material and convert it into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has been identified as a utility that could test such fuel at a couple of its reactors.

Critics have cited cost overruns and schedule delays connected with the MOX project. But supporters say the project is of high importance. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) briefly held up the nomination of Moniz to head DOE because Graham said the Obama administration was waffling in its support of the MOX project.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.