COLUMBIA - Lawmakers are again calling on the Obama administration to keep open a South Carolina facility to process weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel, arguing that plans to close the plant would jeopardize an international nonproliferation agreement and could trigger millions in federal penalties.
On Monday, House members including all of South Carolina's seven representatives - six Republicans and one Democrat - wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz stressing the importance of the mixed-oxide processing plant at the Savannah River Site.
Last week, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott wrote a similar letter, urging President Obama to reconsider his decision to mothball the Savannah River Site project known as MOX.
"Your Administration has failed to proposed any alternative to the MOX program, which if shuttered will abandon 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium in South Carolina and Texas for an indefinite period of time while the Federal government pays hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the state," Graham and Scott wrote.
The MOX plant is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department. The first such facility of its kind in this country, MOX was supposed to help the United States fulfill an agreement, along with Russia, to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium - an amount NNSA says is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.
Given tension with Russia over the situation in Ukraine, Graham and Scott also note that, by failing to complete the MOX project, the administration is "simultaneously giving President Putin an excuse to break a critical nuclear arms control agreement."
Federal regulators have routinely given good marks to progress on MOX. But the project's costs have ballooned over the years to nearly $8 billion in construction expenses, with a projected cost of about $30 billion for the years it's in use. There also aren't any customers signed on to buy the commercial reactor fuel it would produce.
The letters echo arguments that lawmakers and other South Carolina politicians have been making for months, since Obama sent Congress a budget proposal that would put the project in "cold standby," essentially mothballing it while officials search for alternate ways to dispose of the plutonium.
South Carolina has also filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the project to remain viable, and the administration has not yet responded in court.
The plant is supposed to start operations in 2016, and failure to keep it on a fuel production schedule could mean millions of dollars in fines for the federal government. If it doesn't meet production goals, an agreement with South Carolina requires the federal government to pay the state penalties of $1 million a day, for up to $100 million annually.
In the House members' letter - also signed by more than a dozen other lawmakers from Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington State - representatives mentioned the fines and also noted that, without the plant, plutonium could end up staying in South Carolina for the long term.
"Material will never move out of SRS, and the U.S. will have a serious blow dealt to its international credibility on the nonproliferation front," they wrote. "It will leave material stranded and derail environmental cleanup missions in South Carolina for years to come."