Food and Technology Blog

Senator Graham supports plutonium fuel project, puts Energy Secretary nominee on hold

Posted Apr. 24, 2013 / Posted by: Lisa Matthes

Senate hearing could bring MOX fireworks

Washington, D.C. – Senator Graham (R-S.C.) has placed a “hold” on the nomination of Dr. Ernest Moniz for secretary of the Department of Energy, drawing attention to a troubled plutonium management program that Sen. Graham is seeking to protect. The controversy over the hold and the costly plutonium program that Sen. Graham has taken under his wing could result in a Senate showdown at today’s Department of Energy budget hearing.

The hold on the nomination is over a grossly mismanaged Department of Energy program to produce plutonium fuel -- mixed oxide fuel (MOX) -- from surplus weapons plutonium at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Shaw AREVA MOX Services, a French government-owned plutonium and nuclear services company, is constructing the MOX facility at SRS and cost estimates have jumped from $4.9 billion to $7.7 billion. Operating costs alone have soared to an estimated $543 million per year.

“Due to mounting problems, the plutonium MOX program rightly merits total elimination,” said Tom Clements, Friends of the Earth’s Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator. “It is no surprise, given Sen. Graham’s parochial interest in protecting the contractors involved in the MOX program, that he has mounted a feeble attempt to salvage it,” added Clements.

Graham’s strategy of challenging the Moniz nomination could well back fire, according to Friends of the Earth, and bring on increased scrutiny of the program, which is at risk of being terminated for being far over budget and far behind schedule. Friends of the Earth has tracked the MOX program since its inception in the mid-1990s and endorses disposal of plutonium as waste, a cheaper, quicker and safer option than introducing weapons plutonium into commerce via MOX.

While the Department of Energy has refused to release a life-cycle cost of the overall MOX program, Friends of the Earth estimates the cost to be at least $22 billion. Spiralling costs, schedule delays and technical challenges may well result in termination of the program, which Sen. Graham is seeking to prevent given the economic impact in Aiken, South Carolina, home of SRS.

The White House announcement of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget on April 10 noted that the MOX program in South Carolina “may be unaffordable…due to cost growth and fiscal pressure.” And that the administration would “assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies, resulting in a slowdown of MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility construction in 2014…”

“Sen. Graham’s efforts to protect the financial interests of a French government-owned plutonium company, at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer is unconscionable,” said Clements, “and underscores the urgent need for a full review of management and spending of the MOX project, which has spiralled out of control.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 21-1 to confirm Dr. Moniz, with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina being the lone voice against the nominee. Senator Scott’s questioning of Dr. Moniz during his nomination hearing on April 9 was solely about MOX. That both South Carolina senators are drawing the line over the MOX program underscores that it has become an inefficient jobs program for South Carolina, according to Friends of the Earth. The nomination is now in the hands of the full Senate.

The Senate Energy & Water Development Subcommittee will hold a hearing today on DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs, which covers plutonium MOX.

Aerial photos of MOX plant at Savannah River Site available for use.

Contact: 
Tom Clements, Columbia, SC, 803-834-3084, 803-240-7268 (mobile)
Shaun Burnie, Washington, D.C., 202-222-0733

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Friends of the Earth fights to create a more healthy and just world. Our current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, keeping toxic and risky technologies out of the food we eat and products we use, and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

Notes:

1. Aerial photos of the MOX plant, taken on March 29, 2013. Photo credit: Friends of the Earth:
http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/6a/b/2857/MOX_plant_1_3.29.2013.JPG
http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/fc/3/2858/MOX_plant_2_3.29.2013.JPG

2. White House (Office of Management and Budget) statement of Department of Energy funding for Fiscal Year 2014, including on the review of plutonium disposition: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2014/assets/energy.pdf

3. DOE budget volume for FY2014, with MOX section starting on page DN-111: http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/04/f0/Volume1.pdf

4. Friends of the Earth life-cycle cost analysis of MOX program, April 4, 2013 - $22 billion left to be spent:
http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/74/f/2859/cost_of_MOX_looking_foward_4.4.2013.pdf

5. Senate Energy & Water Development Subcommittee hearing, April 24, on DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs, which covers MOX:

Energy and Water Development Subcommittee (Chairwoman Feinstein)
Time and Location: 2:30 p.m., in Room SD-192 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building

Agenda: A review of the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 funding request and budget justification for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Witness: The Honorable Neile L. Miller
Acting Administrator
National Nuclear Security Administration

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