Sen. Lindsey Graham and his colleagues from Georgia went to bat for the imperiled MOX plant at the Savannah River Site last week, persuasively citing its importance to nuclear non-proliferation and global security.
They were raising the alarm that the Obama administration’s budget would effectively terminate the MOX facility, designed to reprocess weapons grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel.
Doing so would abrogate the nation’s 2000 nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Russia. And, as Sen. Graham told the Senate, it would violate an agreement with the state of South Carolina over the future of 34 metric tons of plutonium transported to South Carolina for reprocessing.
“We agreed to take this 34 metric tons years ago, with the understanding that it would leave South Carolina and not affect the environment of Georgia and South Carolina in a permanent way,” he said.
SRS is located in Aiken County near the border with Georgia. The MOX facility is 60 percent complete.
The administration’s shift on MOX recalls its policy reversal on nuclear waste, when it forced the Energy Department to abandon Yucca Mountain as a national disposal site, even as the long-awaited project neared completion.
The administration has done little since that irresponsible, politically motivated shutdown, other than appoint a Blue Ribbon Committee to study the issue. The practical results have been nil.
A similar study group is planned to consider a MOX alternative.
The president’s decision to ignore the waste issue didn’t make it go away, not with tons of high-level radioactive waste stored at dozens of nuclear reactor sites across the nation.
Columnists William and Rosemarie Alley describe the problems facing the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego, Calif., where 1,4000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are awaiting safe, long-term storage. Nationwide, 70,000 tons are similarly stored on site.
South Carolina’s nuclear waste problems are primarily defense-related, and include immense quantities of high-level liquid waste, a byproduct of weapons production during the Cold War. Unless the MOX plant is completed as planned, the state could additionally be left holding the bag on tons of deadly plutonium.
As detailed in congressional investigations of the Yucca closure, the administration did what it could to permanently prevent the project’s revival by wholesale removal of support facilities and equipment on site. But the fact remains that a great deal of work has been done in the interior of the mountain, at a cost of some $15 billion.
Clearly, it would be less trouble to pick up the pieces at the Yucca Mountain site than to develop another waste repository. And nuclear waste would be safer stored at remote Yucca than at Savannah River Site.
Meanwhile, the federal government should make good on its promise to deal with excess plutonium. Building the MOX plant was a major element in the treaty to neutralize weapons grade plutonium in Russia, where storage is not as secure.
“It’s good for the country; it’s good for the world,” Sen. Graham said, adding that the plutonium at SRS is sufficient for 17,000 warheads.
The administration should focus on reducing cost overruns on the MOX plant, not abandoning the project.
The federal government must meet its obligations on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear waste.